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Restless Shadow Ministers Want Keir Starmer To Shake Up Labour's Top Team

Keir Starmer has been urged to be more "ruthless" (Alamy)

5 min read

Members of Labour's shadow ministerial team are restless to see Keir Starmer shake up his top team and are urging him to be more “ruthless” in his appointments.

But senior MPs who spoke to PoliticsHome say they sense Starmer is not prepared to “rock the boat” after speculation he was preparing to reshuffle the shadow cabinet twice this year did not come to fruition. It is understood that shadow ministers see a greater urgency for new appointments after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak split two departments into four in his own recent Cabinet reshuffle in February, meaning the opposition front bench is not a direct reflection of the government. 

“I don’t know if Keir wants to rock the boat. We are not mirroring the Government at the moment; it makes life difficult and challenging with colleagues," one shadow minister told PoliticsHome

“I don’t think LOTO [Leader of the Opposition] realise how much friction this is causing in the Parliamentary Labour Party.”

Labour is gripped by a “nervous energy”, according to one Labour source, as it enjoys an 18-point lead over the Conservatives in the polls, which if sustained could put the party on track to return to government for the first time since 2010 when the next general election is held in 2024.

Some Labour MPs say they are growing increasingly irritated by what they perceive as Starmer's reluctance to reshuffle allies from the top table. “Lots of people are ready for a reshuffle, some are desperate for a change before we get into Government,” the shadow minister continued.

“It feels like things are tired and we need a refresh. It’s impacting people. Ministers are getting territorial in their own teams. We need the best team possible at the top, there is no room for complacency with each other.

“[I don’t know] whether Keir is ruthless enough to upset some of his friendships. There’s no room for friendships in politics. It is about the best team which will get us elected.”

The last two major reshuffles Starmer undertook were in May 2021 and November 2021. In that year he replaced MP for Torfaen Nick Thomas Symonds with MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford Yvette Cooper as shadow home secretary. Cooper is one of the few members of the parliamentary Labour party with government ministerial experience, having served in both Blair and Brown's governments. 

In November 2021, Tottenham MP David Lammy was appointed as shadow foreign secretary, replacing Lisa Nandy, who shifted over to the levelling up brief. The role has been viewed as significant in shadowing one of the Conservatives' flagship policies aimed at retaining voters in the in the so-called 'Red Wall'. It was seen as a good fit for Nandy, MP for Wigan, as it reflected her passion for towns and regeneration.

Wes Streeting, MP for Ilford North, was promoted from shadow secretary of state for child poverty to shadow health secretary, responsible for Labour's NHS pitch, a crucial pillar of any general election campaign. Streeting, who was elected in 2015, has been viewed as a potential successor for Starmer, with the FT describing him as a potential "saviour" for Labour as the party languished in the polls in 2022. 

Meanwhile, Jonathan Reynolds, MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, replaced Ed Miliband, MP for Doncaster North, as the Party's shadow business secretary. Miliband, a former Labour leader with cabinet experience under Brown, appears to have excelled in his new role of shadow secretary of state for climate and net zero. His influence "extends far beyond his brief", according to the Spectator, which noted that one of Starmer's flagship promises for a state-backed energy company has a "distinctly Miliband flavour".

So far this year, there have been two rumours Starmer was ready to revamp his shadow cabinet, although a Labour source strongly dismissed this as speculation. When the rumoured shake-up in January never materialised, one shadow minister said they were told a reshuffle would take place in May after the local elections. They believe the leadership now intends to wait until the autumn, in time for Labour Party conference in October. 

If Starmer does change his shadow cabinet, there is a belief in the party that Darren Jones would be rewarded with a seat on the front bench. Perceived as a "rising star" by some colleagues, the MP for Bristol North West has impressed as chair of the business and trade committee. Senior Labour MPs are uncertain as to who could be in the firing line to make room for new faces.

But not all of the shadow cabinet is vying for a reshuffle, with many backing Starmer's perceived caution. One MP suggested those who are calling for change simply want a promotion themselves. 

Another shadow minister stressed it was important for Starmer to take time and make appointments he could take into government, arguing that with Labour on the precipice of power, his team could be in the position to alter the landscape of British politics. 

“What Sunak does with another reshuffle is just rearranging the deckchairs,” they said, while cautioning that Labour appointments in the coming months could affect "the next five years and beyond".

Starmer could face difficult choices with heading into government, however, having lost a significant number of experienced MPs when the party suffered its worst electoral defeat in 84 years in 2019, leaving them with just 197 MPs. While some of those who were previously ousted plan to make a bid to return, party veterans including Harriet Harman and Margaret Hodge have already confirmed they will not stand at the next election. 

A Labour spokesperson said speculation that a reshuffle was imminent was just "noise" and "tittle tattle". “The recent local elections showed we are on course for a Labour majority. People are coming back to Labour thanks to the changes Keir has made to the party," they added.

"All our focus is on continuing to show the public that Keir’s mission-led government will tackle the cost of living crisis and seize the opportunities Britain has to get its future back. We’ve made the progress we have because we’re entirely focused on that."

But months of tension among critics threatens to bubble over if Starmer doesn't make new appointments before Labour's party conference, despite others expressing admiration for Starmer's caution and resistance to such pressure.  

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