His was a black coffee, hers was a latte. He wore his black face mask, she wore her white surgical one. Yet when Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner met up for a cuppa in Portcullis House, they shared a smile and a laugh. The message to onlookers felt deliberate: we might look and sound different, but we really are on the same team.
If there was a sense of uneasy relief, it was understandable. The Labour leader and his deputy had certainly been through 48 hours of the most serious tensions in their relationship, sparked by briefings to newspapers on Saturday that she was to be “sacked” from her post of party chair and campaign coordinator.
Rayner was deeply unhappy at any attempt to scapegoat her for Labour’s more disastrous election results in England. Many MPs on all wings of the party felt that Sunday’s shadow cabinet reshuffle, being conducted even before final results were confirmed, was a PR disaster. But it was the apparent attack on the deputy leader that most threatened an ugly civil war.
Ever since their joint victories in April 2020, Starmer and Rayner have often relished their reputation as the Odd Couple of British politics. He’s the London-based former Director of Public Prosecutions, she’s a northern former care worker, but each had complementary strengths. The deputy leader even has Starmer listed in her phone address book as “Mr Darcy” (a jokey reference to claims that he was the real-life inspiration for Bridget Jones’ dashing young lawyer).
Yet while the pair have rarely had a cross word until their meeting on Saturday evening, some allies of both felt it was a showdown that was long overdue. Tensions have simmered between Starmer’s political director and Rayner over a range of issues of party management, such as how the National Executive Committee is run and local candidate selections. MPs have acted as proxies for each, although the vitriol was often kept private.
The first hint of bad blood emerged after Starmer’s very first appointments in 2020, when it was claimed that Rayner had vetoed a plan to install Rachel Reeves as shadow chancellor. Instead, he gave the job to Anneliese Dodds, a shadow Treasury minister under Corbyn who was seen as a non-factional figure.
Rayner disputes the charge of trying to pick that first shadow cabinet. “She gave her advice,” says one colleague. “It was ‘make it broad, show that if you’re competent and collegiate you’ll succeed’, that way the front bench won’t be the property of any one faction, which Jeremy didn’t learn from.”
Some in the party felt that Rayner wasn’t always loyal to the leader in NEC meetings, claiming she would try to work with Unite or GMB representatives. “It was incredibly unhelpful at times,” says one NEC member. “You thought she was there to support Keir and sometimes you found that support wasn’t always there.”
Another adds: “She will strategically have ‘other meetings’ when we need her.” Again, this is disputed by Rayner supporters, who point out that on key issues like anti-Semitism she suffered attacks from the hard left for backing the leadership.
Moderates claim that last November Rayner was instrumental in pushing a plan to make left-wing Fire Brigade Union rep Ian Murray the chair of the NEC. The move was resisted and instead veteran MP Margaret Beckett clinched the top post, much to the fury of many leftwing Labour backbenchers and trade unions like Unite and the Baker’s Union.
“Unison funded her election campaign, she literally wouldn’t be in parliament without them, yet this past year she’s had all kinds of deals with GMB and Unite and not shown any respect to the union she’s actually from,” says one party figure.
However, Rayner’s friends say that she is the one who has been cut out of NEC decisions, particularly those made by the crucial Officers group. “[Starmer’s political director] Jenny Chapman created a caucus of people on the NEC Officers which is in effect an anti-Angela caucus. They’re deliberately organising as a group, designed to block anything that Angela might propose, which is hard to square with a joint leadership.”
Rows over the Liverpool city mayoral selection, triggered by the arrest of former local leader Joe Anderson amid bribery and witness intimidation claims, were particularly bitter. Rayner supporters were accused of working with Unite to get a preferred candidate, and in turn they hit back that it was the leader’s office which failed to do due diligence on contenders.
An NEC member says: “For her to be important, the Left have got to be important so she can present herself as a bridge to these people. But Keir needs to ask if she’s the kind of bridge that they’re going to use to run across and attack him.
“It’s critical she’s not in charge of [Westminster] selections, because otherwise you get a PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) that hasn’t been designed to be the hotbed of the talent Labour needs to get to run a government, but one that has been designed to maximise the number of nominations for Angela Rayner in a future leadership contest.”
It’s that charge of looking over Starmer’s shoulder towards a future bid for the top job that several centrist MPs have made in recent weeks, particularly among those who were unimpressed by her campaign presentations over Zoom to the PLP. “Everything she does seems to have one eye on life after Keir,” one former minister said.
Rayner allies strongly reject the claim. “Many MPs are totally egotistical and ambitious and they therefore tend to assume that all other MPs are endlessly egotistical and ambitious. The reality is there is no alternative leader on offer,” one says. “If there’s one thing that puts you off leading a political party it’s seeing it up close.”
There’s a much more important reason too, some say. “No deputy leader ever has become leader of the Labour Party and that is for the simple reason that when you are deputy, if the leader fails you have failed as well. If Keir fails, she fails. If you look at everything she’s done, you’d have trouble saying how any of it is building her base.
“That’s partly a reflection of her politics which are not hard left or hard right, everything she’s done has pissed off one side or the other, or quite often both, but also because she’s trying to do her job as the deputy leader, building bridges, finding common ground, smoothing things over for the leader.”
Some of Rayner’s advice on how to run the local elections campaign – with a strong emphasis on improving pay for care home staff –– was ignored, it is also claimed. She was “shut out” of political strategy meetings attended by Starmer’s inner circle of aides. More broadly, for months she has been deliberately kept off the media, supporters say. “There’s a feeling that some around Keir try to keep people who could overshadow him in any way out of the mix. There was a very small circle of people allowed on the TV.
In one clue to the depth of mistrust, HuffPost UK has been told that The Andrew Marr show tried to invite Rayner on one Sunday but were told by the party that she couldn’t appear because of a problem with childcare. The incident surprised Rayner when it was relayed back to her later, because she had no such childcare issues. “She has definitely been kept off the airwaves,” a colleague says.
As a gregarious figure admired for her time as shadow education secretary, Rayner deputy has strong support among many MPs, including in the shadow cabinet. Even before the weekend move to sack her as party chair, there was disquiet about briefings that Dodds would be axed as shadow chancellor. Some MPs were astonished on election day last Thursday to be rung up by Jenny Chapman asking who they would prefer in the post.
But it was the move against Rayner that sparked the biggest backlash. She had been seeking a meeting with Starmer on Saturday to discuss lines to take as she prepared to go on The Marr Show the next day. At first a 3pm meeting was granted, then postponed as Starmer met with his top team. When she was eventually called upstairs, as the Sunday Times prepared to break its story of her sacking, she was told she was being relieved of her party chair and campaign coordinator jobs.
Rayner emerged looking more angry than many had ever seen her. “She was fuming,” said one party figure. Colleagues had to calm her down amid fears that she was very close to walking out of the shadow cabinet altogether. “She said: ‘They’re trying to mug me off, trying to make me take the blame’,” an insider said.
“They’re all nice people, but they’re not very emotionally intelligent,” one Labour figure said. “Of course it’s Keir’s right to do a reshuffle, he’s the leader of the Labour Party. But first have a discussion with her about political strategy, and what you want her to do. It’s sad because it feels like they’ve killed Keir – the Keir that won the leadership.”
One former staffer said on Saturday night: “This Angela decision is probably one of the stupidest political decisions a leaders office has made in a very long time. And that includes putting Richard Burgon on the front bench.” Some shadow ministers were so upset at Rayner’s treatment that they refused to go on the airwaves to defend the decision.
Both sides stepped back from the brink on Sunday, once the reshuffle was finalised after hours of wrangling. Rayner had initially been offered the post of shadow health but instead emerged with a raft of titles and responsibilities including “Shadow First Secretary of State”, shadow Cabinet Office minister and a wide-ranging role on policy on work and jobs.
Some centrists were almost as furious at Starmer for backing down as others were for the sacking in the first place. “They do not understand the grip they have, the leader’s office, general secretary and NEC and need to get on with it. People need to be afraid of him and we are reaching a stage where unless he’s a lot bolder he will lose authority.”
But others are just relieved the whole episode is over. “I hope that lessons are learned and it doesn’t happen again,” says one Rayner supporter. “Everyone will have to have a bit of a look at people who might have got a bit carried away and mouthed off. It’s very easy to tip people back into a civil war mindset, because of everything that’s happened in the last few years, it’s like the slightest trigger and suddenly everyone loses their minds.
“Hopefully the lesson from this weekend is that actually when this happens, we all end up weakened by it and no one really wins. None of us wake up in the morning wanting to fight each other, especially Angela. She wakes up wanting to give the Tories a kicking and get us into power.”
A Starmer ally added: “Everyone accepts we don’t want anything like this again.”
Others think the Rayner backlash has simply delayed the inevitable, wider culling of the frontbench that had been planned. They expect the number of shadow ministers to be cut to match the government’s later this summer. “It’s unfinished business,” one MP on the right says. “He’s done about a quarter of what he needed to do,” adds a senior figure. “There is a social clique within the shadow cabinet who brief against Keir and it needs breaking up.”
On Monday morning, Starmer was keen to mend fences when he addressed party staff along with general secretary David Evans. He explicitly had a line about “the last 14 months since Angela Rayner and I have been leading [the party]”. Evans added it was important that “we learn from the mistakes in a comradely and collective way”. “We are trying to change the world, it’s a difficult thing to do…but we need to be there for each other.”
The newly expanded shadow cabinet met just before lunchtime in the Boothroyd Room of Portcullis House, one of the few rooms big enough to cope with the social distancing needed for its 34 members. Starmer and Rayner were side by side, though with the required one metre apart. He heaped praise on her new “public facing” role, while she said the whole team needed to carry out Starmer’s vision.
But there was no getting away from the feeling that the past days had been mishandled. The meeting was described as “frank but comradely” by one of those present. Starmer led a feisty set of speeches. “When you see Keir speak with that kind of passion you wonder why you don’t get to see it more often,” one insider said. “David Lammy gave people a proper kick up the arse – reminding them that there were also lots of good results through Saturday and Sunday.”
Most importantly of all, Starmer made clear he was not scapegoating his deputy for the Hartlepool disaster or the overall losses in the English council elections. “To be clear, I take responsibility. Nobody else. I lead the Labour Party and it is entirely on me,” he said.
And as Starmer and Rayner met up for that coffee later, all sides reflected on the need to change. “There isn’t a personal problem with Keir. If Keir wants something she is not going to stand in his way,” one old hand said.
“The Queen’s Speech will help us refocus minds and remind everyone who the real enemy is,” said a staffer. “We’ve turned the page. It was a disagreement between friends, who had a falling out and making up rather than anything more, this is politics.”
There was even a hint that the bond between the leader and deputy had come through its most serious test. “If you recall Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget and Darcy did indeed have their ups and downs but there was a solid partnership underneath it.”