Now I know why Keir Starmer wanted to go on what looked like his wild goose chase to change the rules for electing a Labour leader: Angiemania. Could it be because he was a bit worried about a leadership challenge – in particular, one from his deputy leader, Angela Rayner, who is turning into a bit of a cult figure?
What’s Rayner got that Starmer hasn’t? It’s not just the authenticity, though that is, well, authentic. She’s packing a genuinely moving backstory and she’s not afraid to use it. It’s sad to hear about her childhood and the tough time she had as a single mum. She made her way in the world through the trade union movement, and from the grassroots of being a shop steward rather than a research officer – an old-fashioned route.
The parliamentary Labour Party used to have a lot of working-class people like her – ex-miners or the like. Jim Callaghan had a similar background; the Labour Party tends to like it. In a House of Commons increasingly dominated by graduates and ex-special advisers, ie professional politicians, it’s refreshing that someone like Rayner can bring that experience and slap it onto the despatch box at Prime Minister’s Questions.
That’s her other shocking trait – her audacity. Here’s someone who says what she thinks and answers the questions, and with some wit. In that respect she is a novelty these days. She has that ability, which you rarely glimpse in a politician, of engaging with an argument – and going on the offensive, even if what they said was rubbish. It’s the sort of thing you could see in the way that Margaret Thatcher, Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn, Tony Blair and Nigel Farage used to handle themselves.
For instance, when a politician is obviously on manoeuvres for the leadership or No 10, the usual evasive behaviour involves mumbling something about being very happy in your current role, or that you’re concentrating on policy, or that there is no vacancy – or saying, “What I think your viewers are really interested in is the work we’re doing on policy…”. Everyone can see right through such flimsy code. Rayner is our first post-spin-era senior politician to just say yes, she’d like to do the job if needed, and she thinks she’d be better at it than Johnson (which is undeniable).
So the fact she called Tory ministers “scum” is unsurprising – she has used it in the Commons – but she did not apologise this time, unlike in the house. When Trevor Phillips asked her on Sky News about her use of the word, she brushed it off as “post-watershed”. When he pressed her to apologise for it, she said she’d apologise when Boris Johnson apologised for his remarks about Muslim women and all the rest of it. She said she wasn’t talking about all Conservatives, or even all MPs, but ministers who are happy to let kids go hungry – because it’s a “scummy thing to do” (which is, again, undeniable). In any case, she put Phillips right in his place. She thinks on her feet, literally, so when she shot back at a heckler with a great line – “You’ve had all the wine that I haven't had, mate!” – zinger!
But as post-watershed as the words were – uttered to put “fire in the belly” of demoralised Labour activists, as she stated – and as much as they sounded like a stream of consciousness, they were carefully chosen. The s-word was in fact used twice, as reported by the Mirror: “We cannot get any worse than a bunch of scum, homophobic, racist, misogynistic, absolute vile [inaudible] banana-republic, vile, nasty, Etonian [inaudible] piece of scum.” I’d love to know what the “inaudible” bits were.
She was doing a couple of things there, whether consciously or not. First, she was having a bit of mischief, because she and her audience remembered how she’d been told off for directing the unparliamentary word “scum” at some Tory backbencher in the Commons – but here she was among friends.
Second, she said what an awful lot of voters, and not just Labour voters, think – or at least, the “banana republic” bit. Indeed, I’d not be surprised if Ken Clarke and Amber Rudd hadn’t long ago reached the same conclusion about Boris and his gang. Third, she was being defiant: establishing herself firmly as a leader on the soft left, and not as some mere “wingwoman” for Starmer. She knows she has a direct mandate from the membership, and that Starmer can’t sack her – formally for that reason, and informally because of her following and her appeal and growing ability.
She is treading a very thin line between loyalty and pursuing her own interests, and doing it skilfully. Every time she declares that she’s going to be the deputy prime minister she’s signalling that she’s not going to go after Starmer’s job (probably), but also that she expects to be treated with the respect and status she deserves, now and in the future.
She even got away with her eve-of-conference high-profile interview in a glossy magazine – a standard procedure for a politician on the make (Blair did the same sort of thing when he was chasing the leadership), with the glitzy presentation. In the modern phrase, she was throwing a bit of shade on Starmer, perfectly deliberately, but not being seen to do so too clumsily.
You also need to appreciate her ruthless streak. As the new BBC documentary on the New Labour years reminds us, when the moment came for Blair to seize the Labour leadership in 1994, he didn’t hesitate to “betray” his old friend and mentor Gordon Brown – because it was in the interests of the party, and in the national interest, as well as his own.
In a lower key, that is what Rayner did when she outmanoeuvred her old comrade Rebecca Long-Bailey, forgotten now but once thought of as the “heir to Corbyn”. RBL overplayed a weak hand; Rayner, in not running for leader in 2019, got her political timing right. I don’t know what she said when Starmer clumsily tried to demote her after the local elections last May, but she came out of the debacle ahead. She put down what she called a “friendly amendment” to help Starmer’s rule changes through the NEC, but it was a rather ostentatious gesture of support for a leader who needed help. It isn’t quite a joint leadership, still less a dream ticket, but the Starmer-Rayner relationship is closer to one of equals than it was when it started out.
Rayner is shrewd. She knows that sections of the Tory press will try and discredit and smear her, and she knows not to push her luck, because she is, to use an outdated expression, a class enemy to them. I’m reminded of what Blair once said about the way they used to ridicule Prescott: because they didn’t think someone like him (ie working class) should be where he was.
Rayner understands that she probably hasn’t yet acquired the full suite of skills to head her party, or to run the country; she’s pretty happy where she is, watching and learning. Her time will come.
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