Voices: The one thing Keir Starmer’s cabinet is missing? Big names
Gordon Brown. David Blunkett. Robin Cook. Margaret Beckett. Mo Mowlam. Jack Straw. John Prescott.
Tony Blair’s first cabinet in had some truly magnificent big beasts in it – and the voters knew it. Indeed, I feel confident that many of these towering figures were household names even before New Labour’s famous 1997 landslide.
The funny thing is that while it was easy to characterise Tony Blair’s approach to policy, politics and government as autocratic and centralised, he had one hell of a team of senior politicians around him as he marched into Downing Street.
This group – which also included the likes of Jack Straw and Frank Dobson – make Rishi Sunak’s cabinet look like parish councilors. The last few years has left the well of Tory talent dry to the bone.
And the same, it would seem, is true of Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet in Scotland. After more than a decade of both campaigning and government, the SNP doesn’t appear to have anyone close to being ready to fill Sturgeon and Alex Salmond’s boots. With the frontrunner Kate Forbes imploding with every socially conservative utterance, the other options look sub-par at best.
The lack of bench-depth among both Conservatives and the SNP is of course good news for Labour party.
Keir Starmer, as evidenced by this impressive speech this morning (and as I wrote last week), is increasingly looking and sounding like a prime minister. But if he were to fall under a bus tomorrow, there are at least four completely conceivable successors waiting in the wings. In the likes of shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting and shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy, there is a real reservoir of ability.
They are decent communicators, all of them. They have political ambition. They are articulate and disciplined when it comes to perpetuating the Starmer project. Most of the current Tory front bench would only score highly on the ambition front, and even that’s dwindling as the face of the polling.
But they are not yet well known. I strongly suspect but in most of the focus groups I run across this country, only Starmer, Ed Miliband and Angela Rayner would register at all with most voters.
So the question is: could (and should) Labour do something about this? The short answer is yes.
For all the talk of our political system being increasingly presidential, it is not. And in Starmer, who by the standards of most frontline politicians appears to have a remarkably normal-sized ego, they have the right party leader to take advantage of this constitutional truth.
And with the state of public services – most notably the collapsing NHS – set to be a key battleground, voters will want reassurance that those set to be put in charge in 2024 have a mastery of their brief and a vision for how to fix stuff.
Starmer set out five “missions” for government this morning. Loosely they are based around fixing the economy, bringing down crime, driving up social mobility, fixing the NHS and delivering net zero at pace. He can’t communicate the substance of these promises on his own between now and the next election on his own. He will need his co-conspirators to step up to the plate too – and make bold and substantive and popular interventions in all these areas.
It is as clear as day from polling that the public is now settled with the idea that Starmer will likely be the next PM: its time for Streeting, Phillipson, Reeves et al to be allowed to follow in the footsteps of their political forebears. The voting public needs to know who they are and what they think.