Keir Starmer is reshuffling his frontbench team for the second time in a year, as Labour seeks to take advantage of the government’s disarray over social care and the cost of living.
With Boris Johnson facing a series of backbench revolts in recent weeks, and the poll bounce the Conservatives gained from the vaccine rollout apparently fading, Labour is keen to get on the front foot.
Cat Smith, who previously served in Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench team, tweeted that she would be stepping down. She suggested Starmer had offered her the opportunity to remain in her existing post, but that she had raised concerns about several issues, including the failure to restore the whip to Corbyn.
In her resignation letter, Smith described herself as “one of our few remaining ‘red wall’ Labour MPs”. Starmer has put winning back red wall seats at the heart of his plans for the party.
Starmer is understood to want to boost the party’s media standing, as well as promote some figures perceived to have performed strongly in recent months.
He had hoped to carry out a wider reshuffle in May, in the wake of the loss of the Hartlepool byelection, but more ambitious plans were stymied by a furious standoff with his deputy, Angela Rayner, over a change to her role.
Rayner was giving a major speech on standards in public life on Monday as news of the imminent reshuffle began to leak out, and made clear she had not been consulted – and did not think it was the right thing to do.
She told reporters at the event: “I don’t know the details of any reshuffle.”
“We need some consistency in how we’re approaching things as an opposition,” she added, when asked about whether it was the right time for a shakeup.
She stressed Labour should be “focused on getting us into power” and if the party was diverting its attention away from that, it was letting people down.
A spokesperson for Rayner said she had had a “short conversation” before her speech, but “she wasn’t aware of nor consulted on the details of any reshuffle. She was informed a reshuffle would be taking place at some point in the future, but not when.”
However, one Labour source insisted Rayner had been “pushing for” a reshuffle, and claimed her aides were, “trying to confect a row”
It is understood part of the rationale for changes was that Labour’s shadow cabinet was significantly out of step with the lineup of Johnson’s top team.
Labour continues to have a shadow development secretary – Preet Gill – despite the fact the department has been abolished, for example, while there is no formal shadow for Michael Gove’s department of levelling up.
It is understood the shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, and the shadow housing secretary, Lucy Powell, both see themselves as strong contenders for that role, which will be crucial with a white paper on the issue coming up before Christmas.
Some party insiders have also suggested the shadow business secretary, Ed Miliband, could be moved aside, with the environment part of his brief made a standalone role, to underline the party’s commitment to tackling climate change.
A figure perceived as more business-friendly could then be promoted to shadow the business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, with Labour keen to increase its appeal to the corporate sector.
The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Bridget Phillipson, is tipped for promotion, potentially to that role. Chris Bryant, who has spearheaded the anti-sleaze cause in parliament, has made clear he would be keen to take up a frontbench post.
One shadow minister echoed Rayner’s scepticism about reshuffling the frontbench now, with the government in crisis and the Omicron variant raising fresh concerns about public health.
“When the government’s nosediving anyway, why would you bring it back to us?” they asked.
Since Starmer’s last reshuffle in May, in which the shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, replaced by the more high-profile Rachel Reeves, a string of senior staff have also departed from his inner team.
These included his longtime adviser Ben Nunn and chief of staff Chris Ward, as well as political director Lady Chapman, now a frontbench spokesperson in the House of Lords.