6.6 C
New York

The Battle for Keir Starmer’s Ear as Labour Homes In on UK Power

Published:

(Bloomberg) — As Keir Starmer closes in on the reins of UK power, tensions behind the scenes in his opposition Labour Party are flaring up as aides jostle for influence — and future jobs in 10 Downing Street.

Most Read from Bloomberg

With a general election expected later this year, a YouGov poll this week put Labour 26 points ahead of Rishi Sunak’s ruling Conservatives. But instead of spurring excitement among Starmer’s top team, the increasing likelihood he’ll be Britain’s next premier has sparked a bitter internal struggle between competing power bases, according to more than two dozen current and former Labour officials and lawmakers.

Vying for influence are different factions of political advisers, would-be Cabinet ministers, and veteran staff who worked for past prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, according to the people, who spoke to Bloomberg mostly on condition of anonymity. A Labour spokesperson declined to comment.

The fallout leaves Starmer with what they describe as his most consequential calls so far: exactly who will run the country if he does enter No. 10, and how the leader manages the awkward transition from opposition to government without causing ructions that have the potential to derail Labour’s election campaign.

For the last 18 months, the opposition’s path to office has looked clear. The downfalls of Tory premiers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, then Sunak’s failure to swing public opinion in the government’s favor, mean most in Westminster see Labour as close to certain to win the election.

But the party has faced renewed scrutiny in recent weeks after watering down its flagship economic policy to invest billions in green energy and facing an internal schism on the Israel-Hamas war. Next week, it’s set to lose a seat in Parliament after withdrawing backing from its candidate at a by-election in Rochdale over antisemitism.

Beneath those public challenges lie worsening relations between Starmer’s top lieutenants, who’ve been at odds on policy and political strategy, while looking at each other with suspicion as they jostle for jobs. A central player is Starmer’s chief of staff, Sue Gray. The former civil servant was hired last year and opinion on her within Labour is divided.

On taking the job, Gray made it a priority to boost the influence of shadow cabinet members, while seeking to clip the wings of some senior advisers in Starmer’s office and Labour headquarters, people familiar with the matter said. Gray’s allies argue she’s popular with shadow ministers while filling a vacuum in Starmer’s office and adding professionalism to the operation.

Some Labour MPs praised her for diluting a concentration of power among a group of largely male senior Starmer advisers, including campaign manager Morgan McSweeney and aides in the leader’s office nicknamed “the boys.”

But Gray’s approach also faces criticism. She was seen as holding up a decision to ax £28 billion ($35 billion) of green spending, which McSweeney and other Starmer advisers, as well as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Rachel Reeves, campaign coordinator Pat McFadden and influential shadow Treasury minister Spencer Livermore wanted to scrap. They’ve lobbied for a thinner manifesto that gives the Tories less to attack. Gray had sympathy with shadow ministers like energy spokesman Ed Miliband and deputy leader Angela Rayner, who’ve sought a bolder policy offering.

Some Labour officials doubted the wisdom of appointing a civil servant in the party’s most important political role. They questioned whether Gray had experience at making cut-throat political decisions and worried she enabled Starmer’s tendency to dither. She would be perfect leading the response to a terror attack, but not to attacks from the Tory-leaning Daily Mail newspaper, one said, arguing McSweeney was better suited.

Much of the tension has been caused by question marks over Labour staff’s jobs. Gray caused relations to break down when she let it be known she wants new people in some senior roles, particularly policy jobs, people said. A list of names of people lined up to work in No. 10 has been circulated that lacks many current advisers. People are living in fear of their jobs, one aide said.

Blair, who holds regular one-on-one meetings with Starmer, has recommended employees at his Tony Blair Institute think tank. Starmer and Gray are seeking advice more often from an “old guard” of Labour figures who don’t have formal positions, including Blair-era ministers Peter Mandelson and David Miliband. One recent conference call hosted by Gray and McSweeney brought together ex-advisers to Blair and Brown, as well as former Starmer aides and Labour-leaning think tankers, while many current staff were not invited. Gray also wants to hire civil servants with experience of running the country, such as former Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins, people said.

“Moving from opposition to government is like a sports team coming to the end of a season,” former party adviser James Morris said in an interview. As a fresh challenge approaches, “there are tough decisions to be made as some people who’ve been loyal and worked hard could be pushed out. Getting the balance right is key, you don’t want to turn over your whole squad, but it would be surprising if you couldn’t upgrade at all.”

Others in Labour note the importance of political advisers having close personal loyalties to the leader, warning Starmer could be weakened if he sidelines them in favor of new faces.

“The world is different from when Tony won in 1997,” said John McTernan, a former Blair adviser and strategist for BCW Global. “Old guys like me need to get out the way and let the fresh blood have their time.”

Starmer cannot afford to let the uncertainty drag on and allow internal rivalries spill over into outright infighting, a Labour official said. A former Labour adviser said staff will be looking at a story about Bill Clinton’s 1992 election victory as an example of what they hope doesn’t happen. On winning the vote, the president-elect addressed his campaign staff. Thanks for everything you’ve done and good luck with whatever you do next, Clinton is said to have told them.

–With assistance from Ellen Milligan, Joe Mayes and Emily Ashton.

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

Related articles

Recent articles

spot_img