Could big beasts from Labour’s past walk into Keir Starmer’s cabinet?

With the party eyeing election victory, figures such as Ed Balls or David Miliband have been the subject of speculation

As Keir Starmer heads home from Westminster for the festive break, the Labour leader is being pursued by some of the ghosts of Christmas past.

Now Labour is widely regarded to be on course for an election victory, many of those who had written off Starmer’s chances and had abandoned the party under Jeremy Corbyn are more interested in a comeback.

Douglas Alexander will seek a seat in East Lothian and other well-known figures including David Miliband and Ed Balls have been the subject of speculation regarding a potential return to Westminster. There are those in Starmer’s inner circle who have remained close to those figures – but is there any room at the inn?

Shadow cabinet ministers who spoke to the Guardian this week said they expected there would be one more reshuffle of Starmer’s top team next year – and that even then, those with shadow posts might not get the same jobs in government. But mostly they were scathing about the idea that big beasts of the past could walk back into a Labour cabinet.

“I can’t see a universe where there is any place for people who have sat out the political debate for the last decade to return – and return to higher-profile jobs,” one close ally of Starmer in the shadow cabinet said.

Already, two mayors have decided that there is unlikely to be room for them. Sadiq Khan will run for another term in London. Andy Burnham is in the deep freeze because of his loudly stated leadership ambitions and clashes on policy with the Labour leader and is also likely to stand for a third term in Manchester.

Burnham has made it clear to allies that he would be very unlikely to return to Westminster, even for a cabinet job – he only has one other job in mind and that belongs to Starmer. But under Starmer, there would be nothing on offer anyway.

The Manchester mayor was the butt of jokes at Starmer’s Christmas drinks party on Monday night, including: “Andy sadly can’t be with us tonight because he doesn’t know where Westminster is.”

David Miliband has been vague about his ambitions, but there is considerable cynicism in Labour’s higher ranks that he really would attempt to come back as an MP. He and his younger brother are still estranged.

There are those in Starmer’s inner circle who are open to the idea of the return of key players from previous Labour governments. David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, is still close to Alexander, who has been a fellow at Harvard. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, is married to Balls – though the former shadow chancellor turned reality TV star is thought to be interested in returning only if he is certain Starmer would welcome him back.

“I don’t think any of this looks bad for the party,” one veteran MP said. “The fact that serious people want to stand as Labour MPs and be part of a serious party of government is no bad thing. We should welcome experience, particular if the ranks are going to be significantly swelled with newbie MPs.”

But the majority of shadow cabinet ministers, as well as other key members of Starmer’s team, feel patronised by the idea of the return of outsiders who only wish to come back now the party is on the brink of victory.

One senior staffer was dismissive. “Bringing back people who have not been here when it no longer suited them has no political benefit at all. The vast majority of people will not notice and those who do will think it is weird and opportunistic. The only people who care are about a dozen people in Westminster.”

Not much of this keeps Starmer up at night. “I think there are people who spend a lot of time thinking about ‘who owes who what’ and who fucked over who,” said one shadow minister. “And one of the best things about Keir is he is totally oblivious because he came to politics after all that.”

Even without the return of former ministers or mayors, there are a lot more members of the parliamentary party keen for jobs – names often mentioned are the former South Yorkshire mayor Dan Jarvis and the business select committee chair, Darren Jones, who has been a very impressive inquisitor of big business and prime ministers.

“I think the shadow cabinet is still not absolutely the powerhouse it could be,” one shadow cabinet minister said. “There are a lot of people who are not in the right jobs. What is Jim McMahon doing there? Anneliese Dodds is invisible. And Lisa Nandy is clearly unhappy so why doesn’t she get something else?”

One senior Labour MP predicted that any changes were likely to be very minor reorganisation. “If Keir won’t have people like Rosena Allin-Khan, Darren Jones or Stella Creasy in cabinet because he’s worried about people outshining him, then it’s hardly going to be fruitful for David Miliband is it?”

But one senior ally of Starmer said that was an unfair characterisation – suggesting that Starmer was in any case likely to promote Jones. “There are people who Keir promoted who are very ambitious and even a little cheeky with it. But the big difference with people like Wes [Streeting] or Ed Miliband or Bridget [Phillipson] is that they graft and they are have mostly been extremely loyal.

“Why is Ed now really in the tent? Because he is relentless in trying to get Keir’s ear and trying to show him his ideas. He just wanted it more than other people seemed to.”


Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

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