Though it is not a comparison he would welcome, Keir Starmer shares some leadership qualities with Theresa May.
The Labour leader was seen as a safe choice – and not a tribalist – after the party suffered a huge existential ruction. He has no close gang of supportive MPs and is professional, not clubbable. And he pledged to reach out across the divide.
But as May discovered with her Conservative backbenchers, not having a gang of loyalists among your MPs can be a problem. MPs can get out on the media round to defend you – aides cannot.
When Starmer met his closest allies this weekend to work out how to salvage his authority from the wreckage of a power battle with his deputy, Angela Rayner, the cast list left some feeling nervous.
There were no MPs in the room – not even Starmer’s chief whip, Nick Brown, who later became one of the high-profile casualties of the reshuffle.
Instead, Starmer took his counsel mainly from his advisers – Jenny Chapman, his powerful political secretary, his longtime political adviser Chris Ward, his chief of staff Morgan McSweeney, the party’s director of communications, Ben Nunn and Starmer’s policy director, Claire Ainsley. The other influential political player was Charlie Falconer, the shadow attorney general and veteran of the Tony Blair years.
One big name not in the room, but who has been on the lips of many on the left of the party, is the former New Labour spinner Peter Mandelson – the subject of wild speculation over how much influence he has on Starmer’s operation.
Mandelson himself took to the parliamentary Labour party WhatsApp group to try to impose some party discipline on Saturday, saying reshuffles were “horribly difficult things to do and not helped by 24/7 social media – why don’t we all wait and give Keir the space and time to lead and then judge it in the round?”
That remark set tongues wagging about why the Labour peer was undertaking party management on behalf of the leader’s office – whether he was freelancing or otherwise.
Starmer inspires deep and abiding loyalty from those who have worked closely with him. Chapman, the former MP for Darlington until she lost her seat in 2019, was his junior in the shadow Brexit team and once said she would occupy his office until he stood for leader.
Nunn and Ward have worked for Starmer for years, two of his most trusted advisers who helped him plot some of Labour’s boldest parliamentary moves over Brexit.
Resentment about the power of Starmer’s aides – particularly Chapman – has been growing for many months. MPs blamed her for the decision to make Paul Williams the Hartlepool byelection candidate despite his remainer credentials in the pro-Brexit constituency. Labour humiliatingly lost the seat last week.
Shadow cabinet ministers say Starmer even keeps some distance from them, naming only Rachel Reeves – newly promoted to shadow chancellor in the reshuffle – as one who has his ear.
One shadow cabinet minister recalled a diary meeting where there was a scheduled catchup with Starmer – but they arrived to find only Chapman. And on the backbenches, MPs who have not been promoted claim that Chapman is given full power over those rewarded with frontbench jobs – though paranoia may have a part to play.
Another MP said that Starmer himself was not paranoid about leadership challenges or “tall poppies” with ambition, and said that concern came from others in his team. The MP then joked that perhaps they had been right to worry.
Starmer is fiercely protective of his staff, and much of the anger briefed out about Rayner’s conduct over the weekend centred on allegations that she had demanded changes to the leader’s office. An ally of Rayner said they would not discuss her views on party staff, but said the briefing against her had been an attempt to “make her look unreasonable”.