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Posted: 11.09.23

Starmer’s Reshuffle – A Government in Waiting?

Reshuffles are not unique to British politics, but they certainly play a much more prominent role in events than in other countries. Party leaders shuffling their front benches has become an almost annual ritual, as much a part of the political calendar as budgets and party conferences.   

But not all reshuffles are the same. First, the motivating factors for changing your front bench can differ. Sometimes it is unavoidable – resignations, illnesses or even deaths forcing the hand of a Prime Minister or opposition leader. Second, the relative political strength or weakness of the party leader leads to a very different flavour of reshuffle.

Sometimes reshuffles go well, sometimes they don’t. People can refuse to move, throwing a spanner in the works. And the whole thing is a one massive juggling act – promoting new talent, rewarding loyalty (and punishing disloyalty) and balancing all wings of a party. It’s a complicated exercise and often painful exercise. Famously, Tony Blair hated reshuffles and over the years mistakes have even been made, with reports of people accidentally sacked or forgotten in the midst of all the moving parts.

Most party leaders would have been envious of Keir Starmer last week. His reshuffle was from a position of strength – most of the Labour Party is firmly under his control and the party holds a double digit poll lead over the Tories. For Starmer, it represented a golden opportunity to stamp his mark on his top team put in place his first choice of the Shadow Cabinet he wishes to take into Government.

Starmer’s position is a million miles away from the reshuffle when an opposition leader or a Prime Minister is under pressure, desperate to regain the initiative or signal a change in policy direction. At their most extreme, they can be brutal affairs that give off a whiff of desperation. Most famous of all was Harold Macmillan’s sacking of a third of his cabinet in July 1962 – so bloody it became known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’. But it didn’t much help Macmillan – he was gone in a year and the Tories lost the election in 1964.

However, what we saw last week was a long way from July 1962 and was pretty much a textbook reshuffle. Given where we are in the political cycle, it also was likely to have been Starmer’s last major change to his team before the General Election, due by the end of 2024.

Having stability in your front bench team on the run in to a General Election matters. You need your best lieutenants to be on their toes, sharp, eager and across the details of their portfolios for the coming campaign when the minutiae is under severe public and media scrutiny. Starmer’s office have copied much from New Labour’s mid 1990s playbook. No doubt they’ll have studied closely the 1996 reshuffle which saw Tony Blair put in place the team which pretty much went on to be his first cabinet in the 1997 Government.

Having this decent run in to the election with your top team in place also matters for another reason. It won’t be long now until the Civil Service begin what are called access talks. These are formal meetings between opposition front bench teams and the officials in the department they’re shadowing. Continuity of government is key, particularly in a system like ours where the transition of power between the defeated and the victorious is brutal and swift. Officials need to be ready to ensure the wheels of government keep turning, and preparation for all eventualities – including a change of party in power – is crucial.

Back in 2015, I was party to access talks as the special adviser to the Shadow Justice and Constitutional Reform team. We held a series of confidential meetings with the Ministry of Justice and Cabinet Office Permanent Secretaries and senior officials to work through manifesto commitments. This was all undertaken very professionally, handled discretely by officials to ensure the incumbent government are not party to what is discussed. On the agenda in these discussions are the preparation for the first few days of any new government and priorities for the initial weeks in office.

Of course, Labour didn’t win in 2015 and our access talks were in vain. But the polls had been close and it was not certain who was going to form the next government. This time, the polls are much more clear cut. Assuming they don’t dramatically narrow, this crucial planning with department officials will set the course for the first 100 days of a future Labour Government.

Looking at Starmer’s new team in more detail, the big hitters all stayed in place. Rachel Reeves shadowing the Treasury, Yvette Cooper the Home Office and David Lammy the Foreign Office.  Along with Starmer, none of the four were MPs in the run up to 1997 and only Cooper has been a Secretary of State in government. This is not much different from the position Labour found itself in ahead of 1997 – after 18 years out of power, few frontbenchers had ministerial experience.

The major surprise of the reshuffle was the move of Lisa Nandy from the sprawling Levelling Up, Housing and Communities portfolio, replaced by Deputy Leader Angela Rayner. Nandy had proven a vocal and thoughtful lead in this portfolio, although she had not shown great interest in the challenges facing London. Rayner taking over is rather reminiscent of mid 1990s New Labour, when John Prescott as Deputy Leader lead a super department of transport, environment and the regions. With Rayner, there is some hope that London might gain a more favourable audience – she’s on record saying a future Labour Government should build Crossrail 2.

Some have argued that Starmer’s reshuffle saw the Blairites in the ascendency. It’s true that some figures from that wing of the party have prospered (Liz Kendall, Peter Kyle and Pat McFadden to name but three) but what the reshuffle really represents is Starmer’s attempt to project an image of a moderate but serious Government in waiting. He’s sought to get a blend by promoting rising stars (highly regard Darren Jones to Chief Secretary), bring back experienced heads in tricky briefs (the return of Hilary Benn to Northern Ireland) and freshening up the junior ranks.

And given the closeness now to the next General Election, the name of the game for Starmer is reassuring the public that Labour is ready for government and can be trusted in power. Starmer and his team are deadly serious in this respect, even if it means copping some flak from some quarters at a rather thin policy agenda that might lack radicalism. Expect little change in major policy positions, but don’t be surprised if some more barnacles aren’t scraped from the boat over the coming months. Starmer’s calculation is that the line of least resistance is the one which leads to 10 Downing Street – no hostages to fortune, no undeliverable or unaffordable policy commitments, and a highly competent team that doesn’t buckle under pressure.

So, Starmer will be privately over the moon at his reshuffle, particularly as the next major political hurdle – party conference season – is approaching fast. Much can be read about the wider political weather by the mood at party conference and Labour will be keen to give off the impression of quiet confidence without seeming cocky, and his new front bench team are crucial in that.