Is this the moment Clark “Keir” Kent rushes into a phone box, removes his boring disguise and emerges a decisive superhero?
After months of trying to balance the legacy Corbynista left and the Blairite right of the Labour party, and attempting to be calm and measured on the issues of the day, Sir Keir Starmer has finally taken sides in a front bench reshuffle that has all the signs of a man who has had enough of Mr Nice Guy.
In a hint that Starmer is trying to shift the party back towards the election-winning centre-left of the Blair/Brown era, he has moved out much of the soft left from the cabinet, as well as losing Cat Smith, a Corbyn-era shadow minister — who resigned as shadow secretary of state for young people with a jibe about being a rare Labour Red Wall MP. She tweeted her letter to Starmer, which criticized him for refusing to reinstate Corbyn’s party membership.
Instead, in came Yvette Cooper as shadow home secretary and David Lammy as shadow foreign secretary, both cabinet members from the last Labour government. Their appointments are clearly made so that the two big-hitters can tear into the wobbly performances of Priti Patel and Liz Truss, who had not been noticeably troubled by their predecessors. Rachel Reeves, still shadow Chancellor, was a rare frontbencher allowed to stay in the job.
There is little doubt in the media about what Starmer is trying to do after much criticism that his cabinet was weak and lacked impact.
“New Labour,” said a Times leader, simply. “The new front bench, comprising many of Labour’s strongest Commons and media performers – mostly drawn from the moderate wing — suggests a party that is once again serious about gaining power.”
But the manner of the reshuffle, brutal, sudden and surrounded by sniping, allowed others such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph to focus instead on his apparent snubbing of his spirited deputy, Angela Rayner.
Not only did he not consult with her Rayner about the moves – she wasn’t able to discuss details with journalists — Starmer seemed to explicitly time it for maximum anger, beginning the changes as she was about to make a key speech on combating parliamentary sleaze. Although maybe this wasn’t so brave after all – last time, when she was in the loop, Rayner put up a fight and wrangled a suite of new titles from him.
But then, Jeremy Corbyn didn’t consult his deputy, Tom Watson, either.
“The gaffer picks the team,” Lisa Nandy told the BBC, after she was moved from the foreign brief to shadowing the department of levelling up, housing, communities and local government. This would have been characterized as a demotion if it wasn’t for the fact that she will be overseeing issues at the heart of both parties’ agendas and opposing current Conservative Big Beast Michael Gove.
It’s also a position that fits her background and interests. Saying she had a big job to get on with, Nandy added: “I couldn’t care less about the circus of who’s in and who’s out, who’s up, who’s down, who knew, who didn’t.”
Starmer’s message? I am no longer the man dismissed for prevaricating and ducking fights over Brexit and party divisions. If this is the new, pugilistic Starmer, it shows in his ruthlessness towards some of his loyal supporters who had failed to make a mark in their roles. Former shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds was demoted, as was Jo Stevens, from culture, while Kate Green was sacked from education.
The reshuffle coincides with a low point for the government. Even Boris Johnson’s Teflon Tories are losing some support after weeks of sleaze allegations, the tragic failure to come to grips with refugees trying to cross the Channel, which resulted in last week’s fatal drownings, and looming winter restrictions as Covid is very much not back in its box. Even this parliament’s generally docile Conservative MPs are rebelling.
Is Starmer’s new-look Labour now ready to take chunks out of the government?
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, is unimpressed. “Reviving the careers of former Blairite ministers and simply reappointing existing Shadow Cabinet ministers to new posts does give the impression of Christmas Past not Christmas Future,” was his verdict.
He does have a point. Parts of the new front bench was once quite old. Cooper, although only 52, is a perennial senior Labour MP, having first held a cabinet post in 1999. She shadowed the long-demoted Theresa May in the home office, and held her last shadow cabinet post in 2015. Lammy, a prominent Remainer, emotional justice warrior and well-connected internationalist (he counts Barack Obama among his friends and was pictured with Germany’s Olaf Scholz recently), has been around the block. The incoming shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Pad McFadden, was elected in 2005 and has worked with Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. Although stripped of his business brief, Ed Miliband retains a frontbench role on climate change, and as a failed party leader he is hardly the voice of the future.
But its same old, same old only up to a point. Starmer has also promoted some young pretenders to key roles that have become even more visible since the pandemic, with 37-year-old Bridget Phillipson, who joined the party at 15, as shadow education secretary and Wes Streeting, 38, who has recently recovered from cancer, shadowing Sajid Javid in health. Peter Kyle, 51, a former civil servant and aid worker who was elected in 2015, takes on Northern Ireland, which is hardly going to be a quiet job as the bunfight with the European Union over the post-Brexit protocol continues.
If there was any doubt about the younger shadow ministers’ allegiance and reformist zeal, Phillipson’s tweet set the tone: “The last Labour Government transformed the lives of a generation. I’ll work every day to see that change again.”
With the Conservatives polling badly and Starmer seen as more capable than Johnson, Labour new team will know that this when they must start a fightback.
But getting through to the electorate will still be a huge challenge, and the line of attack will have to be more than just going after sleaze.
Johnson may have a few scars from his rough few weeks, but when your schtick is already not playing by the rules, how much damage can you incur by being accused of not playing by the rules?