What a weekend. To most people, the raucous goings-on in the Westminster village surrounding the aftermath of the 2021 Elections (the results of which seemed to be coming in forever) are unimportant and irrelevant. We know that the turnout in local and regional elections are always low, however, these bumper-crop set of polls really did matter – and will echo the world of British politics in many different ways for years to come.
One of the most important votes that took place last Thursday, the Hartlepool by-election, shattered any hopes of Labour returning to power at the next general election. The Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer stormed to victory, with an almost 7,000 majority in what is known as one of Labour’s heartlands. She is the first Conservative (and woman) MP in the town’s history.
There are so many theories for why Hartlepool was such an easy gain for the Tories, when many argue that Labour should really have taken it as they have always done. It’s not even the fact that the Conservatives won by a tiny margin – they won big; not to mention just how rare it is for a governing party to take a seat off the opposition in a mid-term by-election. Was it the fact that normal campaigning on the doorstep was disrupted because of the pandemic? Did The Brexit Party’s vote (who did not stand at this by-election) from 2019 directly transfer to The Conservatives? Did Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow hang over Labour like a lingering smell? Was it because Boris Johnson ‘Got Brexit Done’ as he promised? Or was this resounding victory the result of a so-called ‘vaccine bounce’ in the polls for the Tories?
The problem? We’ll never know…
Personally, I think it is a mix-match of all different factors. We can never know what is going through individual voters’ minds when they are selecting their candidate at the ballot box – BUT there is a real sense of optimism within the country right now – a date to end all Covid restrictions on June 21st and the government’s emphatic success with the vaccine rollout will inevitably have played on the minds of the electorate. This will no doubt be of huge concern to Keir Starmer and his top team at Labour HQ – and whilst work will no doubt be ongoing, there was an undergrowth of chaos looming which one could argue has further divided the different factions within the opposition party.
It was late Saturday evening when news emerged that Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner, had been ‘sacked’ as Party Chair. I ear-mark ‘sacked’ because Starmer’s team stressed that she was being moved to a new role, whilst Rayner’s maintained that she had been abandoned by him. This dominated the headlines when Labour should have been celebrating following huge successes for Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, Sadiq Khan in London and several other mayoralties and councils. Instead, rumours were rife that Starmer was planning a reshuffle of his top team. The leader was facing mounting criticisms because when he said he was planning to take “full responsibility” for the outcome of the elections, nobody expected him to suddenly pass over the blame to Rayner, a prominent member of Labour’s left with strong Northern affiliations.
In turn, most of the front pages and top headlines of the rolling news on Sunday consisted of speculation of a significant shake-up of the shadow cabinet, with no actual comment from the opposition leader’s team, subsequently setting the scene for a radical change on the shadow frontbenches. When the news came, just before 10pm, the reality was much less gripping than the expectation, with only half a dozen shadow cabinet positions changing hands.
Firstly, Angela Rayner, the figure who publicised and was at the centre of this internal row within Labour was given the new role of ‘The Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster,’ shadowing Michael Gove in The House of Commons. Impending was the role of The Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds, who was demoted to Angela Rayner’s old position of Party Chair and Rachel Reeves (a prominent, long-time Labour figure, and NOT somebody identifying with the left of the party) being promoted to the responsibility of shadowing Rishi Sunak. Another notable change was the chief whip Nick Brown (the man responsible for ensuring that party members vote in Parliament as the leadership desires) being sacked and replaced by Sir Alan Campbell. There were rumours that Lisa Nandy (Shadow Foreign Secretary) and Jonathan Ashworth (Shadow Health Secretary) would be demoted and sent to the backbenches, however, this was far from forthcoming.
Overall, the day was a disaster for Keir Starmer. Reshuffles, especially that of the shadow cabinet, are not supposed to garner notable media or public attention. Instead, it is expected to be an opportunity for the leader of the opposition to assert their authority and hegemony – not just within their top team but also the hundreds of thousands of party members they are keen to please. And for a party to gain electoral success with voters over time, it needs to show the public trusted and favourite faces, to give the impression of an organisation ready for government – a group of people who we can all imagine are ready to be in charge and govern.
Therefore, it is no surprise as to why this reshuffle was dubbed by political journalists as ‘Part Two of the Night of the Blunt Stiletto’ – a reference to Theresa May’s first cabinet reshuffle after she lost her parliamentary majority and political authority following the 2017 general election. Much like Starmer’s first reshuffle, it had been highly anticipated and briefed in the press. There were reports of ‘up to a quarter’ of ministers who would lose their positions, when in fact the reshuffle ended up being an administrative failure after a number of her ministers refused to move positions or leave their jobs, including Jeremy Hunt, who famously refused to leave his post as Health Secretary to Business Secretary and instead convinced the-then Prime Minister to allow him to stay at the health department.
May’s willingness to accept Hunt’s request was seen as a sign of her diminished authority, which she had hoped to improve by carrying out such a reshuffle. This hugely resembles the attempted machinations between Starmer and his top team, with his attempt to pin the blame of Labour’s recent electoral disaster on Angela Rayner backfiring on him spectacularly and leading to him offering her a more distinguished role where she will now have a greater voice in Parliament, and ‘a new-found confidence,’ according to sources close to her.
Despite the fact that the election results were depressing for Labour, with the different factions within the party expecting a poor showing in the polls, it is evident that the shambles of Keir Starmer’s first reshuffle – his first real test of authority as leader of the opposition – could well and truly have been avoided.