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Angela Rayner will be Labour’s most powerful minister in government – Keir Starmer should watch out

The deputy Labour leader and champion of workers’ rights may be an unexpected titan in office, writes John Rentoul

Saturday 03 February 2024 14:47 GMT
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It is too early to start thinking about the succession to Starmer but Rayner could find herself in a stronger position than people think
It is too early to start thinking about the succession to Starmer but Rayner could find herself in a stronger position than people think (Getty)

Angela Rayner joined the pragmatic side of the argument over Labour’s green investment plan yesterday, describing the £28bn-a-year figure as “arbitrary”. This is significant because I had thought that she might form an alliance with Ed Miliband, the shadow energy secretary, in defending the commitment.

Miliband has fought hard behind the scenes to preserve the £28bn number, and it seemed that he could look to Rayner, who has her own power base in the party as the elected deputy leader. The figure for green investment is popular with party members, and Miliband has skilfully built a coalition to defend it against the “Blairites” who see it as a millstone around the party’s neck – another Edstone, if you like.

Rayner yesterday appeared to split the difference between the two sides in this argument, allowing the £28bn figure to pass her lips – something that Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, conspicuously would not do the day before – but calling it “arbitrary”.

Thus she seemed to join Keir Starmer on the fence, mentioning the number but qualifying it in such a way as to make it meaningless. But the words she used tilted her clearly towards Reeves’s position: “It’s not about just throwing a figure out there willy-nilly, and saying we’ll just put that in.” She mentioned the fiscal rules that “Rachel” has applied, and said: “This is about identifying where that money will be spent, and when, how quickly we can get that off the ground in a sustainable way.”

Which is interesting because it suggests that she will keep her distance from the “go green or bust” tendency in the party, and that she identifies with the fiscally orthodox majority in the shadow cabinet.

It may be a small thing but it is worth noticing that her comments were made as she was campaigning in the East Lothian constituency where Douglas Alexander is the Labour candidate. If elected, Alexander will be, with Yvette Cooper, Miliband and Hilary Benn, one of four Labour MPs who have served as cabinet ministers. He is a possible foreign secretary in a Labour government, and that Rayner is working with him may be significant.

This also makes some of the other things she said in an interview on that campaign visit important. She attracted attention for her comments about MPs’ safety, saying that she had changed her behaviour as a result of the physical attacks on MPs since she was elected. That is obviously more important than any speculation about who is up and who is down, and it must be hoped that her words, and those of Mike Freer, the Conservative MP who is standing down because of the threat he feels under, are acted upon.

But she also spoke about the policy for which she hopes to be responsible if there is a Labour government: employment rights. She must have been delighted with the headline that Sky News put on her interview: “Labour deputy leader doubles down on workers’ rights pledges after backtracking reports.”

She has pulled off the trick that Miliband fumbled. Labour policy on employment rights has indeed been changed to make it more realistic and therefore more likely to be effective in the long run, but Sky News portrayed her as a strong leader defending what she believes in. For example, Labour’s promise of “full employment rights from day one” has been sensibly modified to allow a reasonable probationary period at the start of a new job.

Her political skills have been underestimated in the past. Starmer thought he could push her aside and leave her deputy leadership a sinecure. She fought back with unexpected ferocity, securing the employment rights brief and the firm promise that she will be deputy prime minister if Labour wins. Indeed, at the low point of Starmer’s leadership, after Labour lost the Hartlepool by-election in 2021, I am told that she was deadly serious about preparing to replace him as leader – before he was rescued towards the end of the year by Labour overtaking the Tories in the opinion polls.

She is also likely to be a force to be reckoned with in a Labour government. She will present herself as a fighter for workers’ rights, focused on job security and raising low pay, possibly with an unspoken emphasis on bread-and-butter issues rather than green circuses. As such, she may be relatively popular with important segments of the electorate, as well as with party members and the trade unions, while building alliances in a Labour cabinet.

Rayner’s appeal to voters is an obvious advantage for Starmer. But her power within a Labour government could also bring problems for the leader who will need to keep her onside. It is much too early to start thinking about the succession to Starmer but Rayner could find herself in a stronger position than people currently think.

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