The local election results are not over yet but the recriminations in Labour over the party’s bad results are already well under way. Following the party’s loss in Hartlepool as well as losses in various red wall councils, Keir Starmer has started to rearrange his top team. This afternoon the Labour leader made the bold decision to sack Angela Rayner as party chair and campaign coordinator. Rayner remains the party’s deputy leader – a role that was decided by the membership and Starmer cannot remove from her.
So, what’s going on? When the news broke, it was met with disbelief by MPs on both the left and right of the party. It’s a decision that appears to have unified the Labour party – but not in the way Starmer may have hoped. Given Labour sources suggest Starmer was disappointed in Rayner’s efforts on the local elections campaign, critics of Starmer now accuse him of scapegoating by placing blame on his deputy. Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell is among those to criticise the decision while several female Labour MPs are questioning the wisdom of sacking a northern woman following defeats in the north.
The reaction is so furious that Labour sources have come out to insist Rayner will still play an important role and could be given a new role – it’s just that campaigns will be conducted differently. However, at best this suggests naivety on Team Starmer’s part – if Starmer had wished to avoid a row, he surely could have simply offered Rayner a new role when they spoke this afternoon. Rayner’s demotion is expected to be the first of several big changes – with Lisa Nandy rumoured to be the next on Starmer’s list for a change in role. This comes after Starmer refused to be drawn on Friday as to whether he would conduct a shadow cabinet reshuffle.
Up until now, few have thought that Starmer’s position is in any real danger. Rather than a leadership challenge, the most likely scenario has been a push on both sides of the party for a new strategy and approach going forward. But by opting to move high profile names from his top team, Starmer is entering more unpredictable territory.
It’s a high stakes move for a Labour leader whose authority has been severely undermined in the past 48 hours. It also means a spate of Labour gains this afternoon including the party taking the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough mayoralty from the Tories will be overshadowed by party drama. The briefings coming from Labour this evening suggest that Starmer thinks this is the time to ensure those closest to him are the most loyal.
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