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Labour are taking a leap into the unknown

There is a huge gulf between the shadow cabinet and the real thing. How will Starmer’s untested team cope with the brutal realities of power?

From left: Angela Rayner, Shabana Mahmood, Keir Starmer, Peter Kyle, Hilary Benn, Rachel Reeves, Darren Jones and Thangam Debbonaire. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty

Most of the time, when you enter a new job, you’ve done something to qualify for it. If you’re about to start a job as a nurse, you’ve spent the last few years training to be a nurse. 

The same holds for plumbers, engineers, checkout workers, and even journalists: either your previous job or your training is intended to make you more or less prepared for the tasks that await you in your new gig.

Politics is nothing like that. The job of getting selected for a seat and then campaigning in it is nothing like the work of parliament. But more than that, the work of opposition has almost nothing to do with the job of being a minister.

Keir Starmer, then, faces a quandary. Everyone expected him to win the election, and he did so. Yet he has almost no way of knowing which of his shadow cabinet members will thrive in government, and which might sink.

And his hands will be tied as to how far he can shake things up at the start of his new government – meaning it could be worth watching some of the new intake. The people who get cabinet seats in week one might not still be there in two years’ time.

The problem starts here. Opposition is all about trying to break through and get some attention, ideally for landing a few blows on the government. You work with a very small team of politically aligned advisers, and generally dwell away in obscurity. 

Even shadow cabinet ministers often have minimal say on the direction of their party or policy: it is certainly true that Starmer’s shadow cabinet members have grumbled that everything flows from the leader’s office (and from Rachel Reeves’s fierce guarding of the purse strings), but that particular complaint is as old as time.

Moving from the shadow cabinet to the cabinet proper is roughly akin to a journalist turning up at work to discover they’re a surgeon now – and they’re somehow already halfway through a life-and-death operation, with no idea of what to do.

Being a cabinet minister means being the overall boss of a department overseeing thousands if not hundreds of thousands of civil servants and other officials. It means overseeing the day-to-day issues and crises that come up in the course of government. It requires overseeing complex legislation through parliament. It means appearing at the dispatch box to tackle questions when required.

It means, in other words, going from seeking media attention to constantly being on the back foot, flitting from issue to issue, trying to manage the everyday chaos – all the while trying to actually advance your own agenda to improve the nation. 

Ministerial jobs are difficult, and the only thing that really compares to them is… that ministerial job. For roles of such seniority and impact, outside of politics generally people look internationally: CEOs move from country to country for the right role, as do football managers, top doctors, and more.

A leader picks ministers from whoever successfully got elected as an MP for their party. When a party has been in government for a long time, at least, there is something resembling a career ladder and training process. 

MPs first serve as interns of sorts – a role called parliamentary private secretary (PPS), in which they are a minister’s eyes and ears in parliament, but also shadow their duties and get up to speed on their brief. A good PPS should find themselves, at the next reshuffle of the junior ministerial ranks, made a minister proper, with a salary, red boxes, and all the paraphernalia that comes with holding an actual public office. 

The lowest rung here is parliamentary under-secretary of state (with the unfortunate acronym Puss), who runs a small and usually unglamorous section of the department, sits on committees for less controversial legislation and generally learns the ropes where scrutiny is unlikely to be all that vigorous.

A good Puss – or alternatively a bad Puss with good political allies, or who is a good media performer – will be promoted to minister of state. These roles oversee the details of major policy proposals, have higher status and responsibility, and deputise for the secretary of state for most of the dirty work. 

When you see a largely unknown minister responding to an urgent question from the opposition in parliament – instead of the well-known cabinet minister responsible – it is a minister of state, taking the flak to show that they can, and to earn their credit for promotion to the cabinet.

The process and training is far from ideal, then, but in government there is at least some sort of test before joining the cabinet to assess an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, and to know how well they will fit into the job.

It is 14 years since Labour was last in government, though, and most of the shadow cabinet were not even junior ministers at that time – a very similar situation to that which faced Tony Blair in 1997. 

Blair had been restricted in his selection of his shadow cabinet due to a Labour Party rule he later successfully repealed: at that time the shadow cabinet was partly elected by Labour MPs. If there were to be 20 shadow cabinet roles, the 20 highest-scoring MPs in the ballot would be in the shadow cabinet – though Blair could pick who got which role.

When he made the transition to government, Blair had free choice of who to place where, but was restricted by not wanting to upset the party too much by throwing out popular MPs once he made it into No 10.

Thanks to Blair’s revocation of that rule, Starmer has not been similarly constrained in his selection of his shadow cabinet – at least not explicitly. There is an old Yes, Minister routine on the selection of ministers that is worth repeating at this stage, uttered by the bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, Sir Humphrey Appleby, himself:

“Prime ministers have little choice in forming governments. There are only 630 MPs, and a party with just over 300 MPs forms a government – and of those 300, 100 are too old and silly to be ministers and 100 too young and callow. Therefore, there are about 100 MPs to fill 100 government posts. Effectively no choice at all…” 

Starmer might have envied the level of choice open to a prime minister in Sir Humphrey’s hypothetical. As leader of the opposition, he had 202 MPs to pick from, rather than 300+. 

Many of these were long-in-the-tooth veterans, either heading towards retirement or unlikely to wish for the rigours of frontline politics – now that select committee chairs have higher profile and a salary for the role, it is often more appealing for the veteran MP looking for something to do.

Thirty-four Labour MPs stood down at the 2024 general election, which ruled them out long before that for shadow cabinet roles that needed to look as much like a government-in-waiting as possible. Around 30 Labour MPs are in the left-leaning and Corbynite Campaign Group, barring them from senior roles, given the growing acrimony between Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters.

The pool from which to select the shadow cabinet, then, becomes very small indeed. That said, there are a few veteran politicians in Starmer’s shadow cabinet: Yvette Cooper has held multiple cabinet roles, and held the select committee chair for her Home Office brief.

Hilary Benn is arguably over-qualified for his relatively junior shadow cabinet Northern Ireland role, though perhaps a safe pair of hands for a role with such sensitivities post-Brexit. Ed Miliband is obviously passionate about the environment brief and has done Starmer’s job as opposition leader – though has had drawn-out clashes with people in Starmer’s office over the extent of his ambitions for net zero.

As to the up-and-coming potential cabinet ministers, Wes Streeting in health, Louise Haigh in transport and Lisa Nandy in international development are all well-regarded and seen as strong media performers – though Streeting and Haigh in particular have challenging departments to manage that will need immediate crisis management skills.

For others in the shadow cabinet, the jury is very much still out. Curiously, it is the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, who is receiving the most negative briefing in policy circles, with the suggestion he is not up to the job and that Starmer is looking to replace him. Such briefing seems misguided.

Even if Lammy were not the most senior black man in the shadow cabinet, at a time when Starmer’s office has faced questions over its treatment of Diane Abbott – meaning removing him would be a terrible look for a new PM – he has handled the thorny issue of the Israel-Hamas conflict ably and loyally, as well as securing Starmer’s attendance at the D-day ceremony skipped by Rishi Sunak. Briefing from “friends” of people who would like the foreign secretary job themselves seems unlikely to succeed.

Starmer is unlikely to make many changes to his shadow cabinet. One thing you do learn as a shadow is where the pitfalls are in legislative areas for your department – because you have spent years trying to find them to use them against the government.

Additionally, in the months running up to an election, senior civil servants meet with shadow cabinet ministers and their advisers to help prepare them for government if they do win. Immediately shuffling ministers to new departments – or out of government – ruins all of that preparatory work.

Some prime ministers are happy to do that, but Keir Starmer has himself run the Crown Prosecution Service, and his chief of staff, Sue Gray, is a former senior civil servant. Both set a lot of stock by propriety and good governance, meaning that for now the shadow cabinet – unknown quantities as they may be – are likely to become the cabinet with at most a few changes.

What is true on day one of a new government is not necessarily true on day 365. Labour’s cohort of MPs is expected to be far larger after the election – it is expected to have more than 400 by Friday morning, at least double its total at the last election.

There are MPs with serious policy experience among the ranks of the newly-elected. Torsten Bell is a highly regarded policy wonk from the think tank world with immense knowledge of the benefit system – which may get him straight into a junior ministerial job. There are former special advisers with real knowledge of the working of departments.

Starmer was first elected in 2015 and almost straight away was given a job attending shadow cabinet as shadow minister for immigration. Despite resigning that role as part of a mass attempt to oust Corbyn following the Brexit referendum, Starmer immediately returned in a more senior role, as shadow secretary of state for Brexit.

He is, in other words, not a man who is going to expect new talent to wait its turn. It will be worth keeping an eye on Labour’s new intake after the 2024 election, and seeing who Starmer tries out in the junior ministerial roles – they may rise faster than anyone expects.

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