‘The joke’s not funny anymore’ said Keir Starmer at a recent Prime Minister’s Questions in a judo move designed to throw Boris Johnson by using the weight of the PM’s comedy persona, which has proved so successful with voters, as a means to pin him down.
To further the point, Starmer has now used his reshuffle to assemble a team of killjoys. Yvette Cooper will shadow Priti Patel at the Home Office, Lisa Nandy will shadow Michael Gove at the Dept of Levelling Up, David Lammy will shadow Lizz Truss at FCDO with Rachel Reeves continuing to shadow Sunak at the Treasury.
Starmer hopes this serious bunch, none of whom are renowned for taking political prisoners, will shake off the last vestiges of Corbynism and take the fight to the Tories by contrasting dour competence and professionalism with the serial calamity and outbreak of foot shooting that continues to beset the PM.
The headline story was the decision to bring Yvette Cooper back as Shadow Home Secretary, a post she has held previously, and, after a number of successful years skewering Prime Ministers and Home Secretaries, as Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. A proper political beast, Cooper will add weight to the Shadow Cabinet and will take a forensic approach to holding the Home Secretary to account on the detail of her words and actions. She will also exploit the exasperation that the PM has let it be known he feels over Patel’s inability to grip migration. Far from avoiding the issue for fear of upsetting red wall voters, Cooper will lean into it to frame what the problems are and why we have failed to address them. She will need to be careful, however, with a majority of just 1,276 in her Pontefract and Castleford constituency, which voted by 70% to leave the EU; many of her electorates may find Priti Patel’s hard-line messaging on migration attractive.
Rachel Reeves and Lisa Nandy have already impressed in the Treasury and Foreign briefs, respectively. They share Cooper’s no-nonsense approach to politics which was very much evidenced at the Labour conference when Starmer began to position the front bench as a team with common coherent aims and objectives. We can expect a lot more of this as Labour begin to settle on a strategy that will take them into the election with clear values buttressed by policy. David Lammy is an effective campaigner and has a high profile nationally, with experience in Government. His chairmanship of the Lammy Review into the Criminal Justice System was groundbreaking and shows just how serious a politician he has become.
But what does this mean for Labour? Firstly, this reshuffle has been positioned as Starmer rewarding merit and bringing forward the most talented performers rather than trying to find factional balance. He is now in a position of strength, and this is the team that will lead the Party into the next general election. Other appointees, including Wes Streeting at Health and Bridget Philipson, along with Reeves and Nandy, point to a generational shift for Labour. The problem for Starmer will be whether or not anyone notices.
Recent, positive poll results mean that the Labour leader can now lay claim to being a contender while the PM has been on the ropes on everything from sleaze, u-turns on social care, and Peppa Pig. While it would be unwise to underestimate Boris Johnson, it is hard to see where the political event or announcement will come that will give him back his Mojo and reunite the troops on the benches behind him. An analogy doing the rounds recently compared a potential Johnson demise with going into bankruptcy – something that happens very slowly and then very fast.
But it won’t be enough for Labour to sit back and hope that the PM will continue to make unforced errors. There is a reason why the Conservative Party is the most successful electoral machine in the world other than the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China and they will adapt and change to their electoral advantage. Expect the unexpected.