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Has Labour Finally Hit On A Winning Formula With Starmer’s New Top Team?

6 min read

Six weeks on from Keir Starmer’s “moderates and media performers” shadow cabinet reshuffle, where loyalists were replaced with better known faces, has the Labour leader finally hit on a winning formula?

Labour are in the best position they’ve been in for a decade, with the party opening up a 10 point lead over the Conservatives as the government sunk deeper into the scandal over parties held in Downing Street during lockdown this week. The survey for The Times by YouGov also found 35% of people believed Starmer would make the best Prime Minister, compared to 23% for Johnson. 

November’s shadow cabinet appointments seem to have played a key part in helping Starmer look like a credible alternative. 

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has become highly visible in the media, recently winning plaudits for his nuanced approach to the trans debate on Nick Robinson’s Political Thinking podcast, as well as making powerful appearances in the Commons. 

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper was seen as a serious appointment, while new shadow education secretary Bridget Philipson has had cut-through over schools returning. Experienced media performer, and the only Corbyn era front-bencher left, Emily Thornberry, has been outspoken on rule breaking by Johnson in her new role as Attorney General. 

A source close to Starmer told PoliticsHome the leader had got what he wanted from the reshuffle and feels in control of the party and its direction.

“It’s evident in our focused messaging, the situations we have boxed the government into, and our positive coverage in papers that we haven’t worked with properly years,” they said. 

“We are making progress in showing the public that we are a serious government in waiting.”

Another Labour source said it was a deliberate move by Keir to place “the party’s best performers in the top jobs”.

“He’s set them clear targets for what they need to do from now until the election and what his priorities are,” they continued. 

“No one’s complacent that the scandals in Number 10 will simply hand us victory at the next election.”Longer-standing members of Starmer’s top team also appear to be making a positive impact lately. 

On Sunday, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves presented a clear policy on energy bills to cut VAT and introduce a windfall tax on big profit making firms, while the government’s lack of a concrete plan so far will remain a thorn in their side long after the dust has settled on partygate. 

Deputy leader Angela Rayner deftly stood in for Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions when he was forced into Covid isolation, landing blows on a seemingly rattled Johnson over the soaring cost of living, and has this week functioned as Labour’s main spokesperson on the Downing Street party scandal, offering relatable takedowns in UK and international media. 

“The Queen sat alone in mourning like so many did at the time with personal trauma & sacrifice to keep to the rules in the national interest,” Rayner tweeted after the bombshell revelation that parties had been held in Downing Street on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. “I have no words for the culture & behaviours at number 10 and the buck stops with the PM.”

Executive Director of Communications for the party, Matthew Doyle, who used to work for Tony Blair, has now been in post for six months and there’s already been an obvious courting of the big media brands that traditionally back the Tories. The Daily Express recently carried a front page about the cost of living squeeze hitting the over 65s the hardest from research carried out by Labour.

One shadow minister said they thought Starmer’s new team looked “a lot hungrier” and now have tougher and better attack lines.

While they admitted some shadow ministers needed to “mature” into their roles and avoid “misfiring because they think they always need to say something,” they still felt positive about Starmer’s front bench. “There’s no doubt this is a better top team,” they added. The step-change has not gone unnoticed by the government either. One Tory MP noted there was a strong public recognition of some of the names Starmer has around him.

With the cost of living set to soar this year, not helped by Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s decision to raise National Insurance from April, they noted that the Tories are facing “a very different world” coming up against Labour and “our party knows it”. 

Asked which individuals rattle the Tories most, he said simply: “Rachel,” meaning shadow chancellor, Reeves.

But another Tory source said that while it’s clear Starmer has a few “sharper eggs” on the front bench, which means ministers are getting more scrutiny, they didn’t believe it would cut through much outside of Parliament.

“I feel like that front bench [is still] dominated by the Starmer-Rayner battle, and she’s a huge chalk and cheese character,” they explained. 

“If you asked any public to name his front team, I doubt they could name four. Any downfall our end wouldn’t be because of their competence, but because of Number 10 incompetence.”

On the left of the Labour party, however, there was a sense of disappointment with Starmer’s reshuffle. 

“The political dimension of the shadow cabinet doesn't reflect the party more widely,” one MP said. 

“But it hasn't mattered as much because the Tory scandals have been so awful there's more to agree than disagree on.”

They felt Starmer was at risk of being eclipsed by bigger personalities.

"Whilst I haven't agreed with everything they've said, Wes and Angela sound stronger and so they are still definitely overshadowing Starmer.”

One peer said they still found Starmer to be bland. "He needs a new "suit"," they said, and suggested that beyond his appearance, he could inject personality into the party with an innovative appointment of peers. 

"Actors, musicians, business personalities, well known names who are Labour supporters,” they offered. “He can make appointments and should do it." 

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