Starmer sparks row with deputy over frontbench reshuffle

Keir Starmer has sparked a row in the Labour party by launching a shadow cabinet reshuffle as his deputy was giving a major speech attacking “corruption” by the government.

Starmer sparks row with deputy over frontbench reshuffle
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Jacob King/PA

Allies of Angela Rayner insisted that while she met the Labour leader between her broadcast round on Monday morning and her speech at 11am, she was not told the reshuffle would be imminent or consulted about any of the details.

One Rayner ally said Starmer would have been fully aware the reshuffle would “blow up” her attempt to lay out plans for reforming the standards system and said it was “not fair”. A second said she had been “gazumped” and complained at the “utterly bizarre” timing.

However, other senior Labour sources disputed Rayner had been “blindsided”. One shadow cabinet minister insisted “she definitely knew”. Another insider said Rayner met Starmer in his office on Monday morning and was told directly the reshuffle would be taking place that day.

Cat Smith, a shadow Cabinet Office minister in Rayner’s team, was the first person to announce they were resigning. She suggested Starmer had offered her the opportunity to remain in her existing post, but that she had raised concerns about several issues, including the failure to restore the whip to Corbyn.

Starmer sparks row with deputy over frontbench reshuffle
© Photograph: Jacob King/PA It is understood Keir Starmer has begun calling MPs who are being sacked or demoted.

In her resignation letter, Smith described herself as “one of our few remaining ‘red wall’ Labour MPs”. Starmer has put winning back red wall seats at the heart of his plans for the party.

Jo Stevens, who had been tipped for a move, announced she was being shuffled from the shadow culture secretary brief to shadow Wales secretary.

Starmer is seeking to capitalise on a series of Conservative backbench revolts Boris Johnson has faced in recent weeks, as well as on the apparent fading of the poll bounce the Tories gained from the initial vaccine rollout.

Starmer is understood to want to boost Labour’s media standing, as well as promote some figures perceived to have performed strongly in recent months.

He had hoped to carry out a wider reshuffle in May, after the loss of the Hartlepool byelection, but more ambitious plans were stymied by a furious standoff with Rayner over a change to her role.

Rayner was giving a major speech on standards in public life on Monday as news of the imminent reshuffle began to leak out, and made clear she had not been consulted – and did not think it was the right thing to do.

She told reporters at the event: “I don’t know the details of any reshuffle.”

“We need some consistency in how we’re approaching things as an opposition,” she added, when asked about whether it was the right time for a shake-up.

She stressed Labour should be “focused on getting us into power” and if the party was diverting its attention away from that, it was letting people down.

A spokesperson for Rayner said she had had a “short conversation” before her speech, but “she wasn’t aware of nor consulted on the details of any reshuffle. She was informed a reshuffle would be taking place at some point in the future, but not when.”

However, one Labour source insisted Rayner had been “pushing for” a reshuffle, and claimed her aides were “trying to confect a row”

It is understood part of the rationale for changes was that Labour’s shadow cabinet was significantly out of step with the lineup of Johnson’s top team.

Labour continues to have a shadow development secretary – Preet Gill – despite the fact the department has been abolished, for example, while there is no formal shadow for Michael Gove’s department of levelling up.

It is understood the shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, and the shadow housing secretary, Lucy Powell, both see themselves as strong contenders for that role, which will be crucial with a white paper on the issue coming up before Christmas.

Some party insiders have also suggested the shadow business secretary, Ed Miliband, could be moved aside, with the environment part of his brief made a standalone role, to underline the party’s commitment to tackling climate change.

A figure perceived as more business-friendly could then be promoted to shadow the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, with Labour keen to increase its appeal to the corporate sector.

The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Bridget Phillipson, is tipped for promotion, potentially to that role. Chris Bryant, who has spearheaded the anti-sleaze cause in parliament, has made clear he would be keen to take up a frontbench post.

One shadow minister echoed Rayner’s scepticism about reshuffling the frontbench now, with the government in crisis and the Omicron variant raising fresh concerns about public health.

“When the government’s nosediving anyway, why would you bring it back to us?” they asked.

Since Starmer’s last reshuffle in May, in which the shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, was replaced by the more high-profile Rachel Reeves, a string of senior staff have also departed from his inner team.

These included his longtime adviser Ben Nunn and chief of staff Chris Ward, as well as political director Lady Chapman, now a frontbench spokesperson in the House of Lords.

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