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George Parker reviews 'Red Queen? The Unauthorised Biography of Angela Rayner'

Image by: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

Lord Ashcroft’s latest political biography successfully reveals some previously unknown details of Angela Rayner’s remarkable back story – but uncovering her core political beliefs has proved more of a challenge

Angela Rayner once said she had learnt to deploy her troubled background to boost her political career: “It does cloud people’s judgment,” she said in 2017. “But it can also help you – and you can use it to your advantage.” 

Michael Ashcroft, in his latest political biography, sets out to dig into that background, successfully eking out elements of Rayner’s remarkable backstory that have not previously surfaced, to the Labour deputy leader’s discomfort.

But he is less successful in answering another question: what does Rayner actually stand for? Many in the Labour Party are asking themselves the same question, as she stands on the brink of completing her journey from the Bridgehall estate in Stockport to political power.

With Red Queen?, Ashcroft has completed his fifth political biography in five years, adding an unco-operative Rayner to a list that also includes Rishi Sunak, Sir Keir Starmer, Carrie Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

With the help of his chief researcher, investigative journalist Miles Goslett, the unauthorised biography has already spawned weeks of news coverage around revelations about Rayner’s sale of an ex-council house and whether she avoided capital gains tax. She denies it.

It also provoked an amusing “prolier than thou” row between Labour, which accused Ashcroft of being a “Belize-based Tory billionaire kicking out at those who graft to get on in life”, and the Tory peer, who retaliated that his roots were in a “two-up, two-down” in Burnley where “the toilet was in the back yard and we used torn-up newspaper as toilet paper”.

Whatever the finer details, the reader comes away with the unavoidable impression that her early life was grim

Ashcroft questions various aspects of the Rayner story – was her school really “failing”, was her relationship with her father actually as distant as she claims? – but whatever the finer details, the reader comes away with the unavoidable impression that her early life was grim. 

Rayner was the main carer for her bipolar mother by the age of 10 and a mother herself by 16. Ian Tunnard, Rayner’s old head teacher at Avondale comprehensive school, called her his “little shadow”, revealing he had to protect her from relentless bullying.

Ashcroft tracks her career through becoming a home carer, her involvement in the Unison union, to becoming an MP in 2015 and her remarkable rise to become deputy Labour leader in 2020.

Along the way, he contends that Rayner becomes something of a diva, complaining angrily on House of Commons notepaper to a purveyor of some novelty Star Wars shoes over the service she received, referring to herself in the third person or travelling first class on trains.

Red QueenRayner says she will be “John Prescott in a skirt” – a loyal deputy to Starmer if he wins the election, connecting the party to its grass roots voters – but Red Queen? struggles to flesh out the core political beliefs that drive her.

She rose rapidly under Jeremy Corbyn, but says she is not a Corbynista. She supported Remain in the Brexit referendum but says she “didn’t have a particularly strong view either way”. 

She says she attended a “failing” local education authority state comp, but as shadow education secretary she opposed the academies – championed by Tony Blair – that improved the life chances of so many kids like her.

Ashcroft chronicles Rayner’s sometimes strained relationship with Starmer, but that partnership now seems to have to stabilised as the election approaches. Or as Rayner tells an interviewer: “He calms me down and deals with my rough edges. I like to think I make him a bit more spicy.” 

George Parker is Political editor of the Financial Times
Red Queen? The Unauthorised Biography of Angela Rayner
By: Michael Ashcroft
Publisher: Biteback

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