Four days after Tony Blair published his hymn sheet for Labour to win another election, Keir Starmer had a reshuffle.
Packing the front benches with familiar names and talent from the old New Labour crowd, Keir tried to assemble a cabinet to eventually win a ballot. Today’s by-election in Old Bexley and Sidcup will be a test for Starmer’s Labour, but not of his new frontbench. Sure, there might be the occasional voter who recognises Yvette Cooper or David Lammy but for the most part, it will be a yardstick of Labour’s ability to make a dent in a true-blue seat.
Even the Conservative candidate, Louie French, admitted his friends were scratching their heads about why he’d decided to run. Some are predicting a “significant” sway away from the Tories, but a majority of 19,000 will be nigh on impossible to overturn. The extent of the blow will be a litmus test. For Angela Rayner (pictured), the deputy Labour leader sidelined in the reshuffle, any sign of weakness from Starmer in the Old Bexley results should charge a renewed boost to challenge his decision to cut her out.
For someone as polite as Starmer, there’s two plausible motives for the skulduggery: a reminder of who’s boss, or a fear of having his arm twisted into giving her another title. There are also plenty of rubblings of Peter Mandelson’s fingerprints. Rayner, who contemplated a coup if the Batley-in-Spen by-election had gone badly, will be ready to fight over the decision to build a Cabinet which isolates her.
Her allies have already been vocal about the depth of the rupture.
It’s easy to dislike Rayner, but it’s just as easy to like her. Have we not all, at a moment of sheer frustration, wanted to call a colleague (or politician) scum? If voters are willing to forgive Boris Johnson for odes to Peppa pig, will they not do the same for a moment of loose-lipped irritation?
Where the chief criticism of Starmer is that he is wooden, Rayner is a firebrand. Wearily following the trail of breadcrumbs laid down by Blair’s victories is not a magic formula.
Rayner and Starmer have a chance, however naive, to say look at us: a QC and a high-school drop-out care worker. We’re from different backgrounds; different parts of the party, but we get it. We understand promises were broken and you feel left out. This isn’t based on anything as simple as union membership or class, we will both bloody well fight for you. Or they could squander a chance to bring together warring parts of a party which for too long has not trusted itself to win.