politics

Rachel Reeves: ‘Labour’s weakness? Tweets and speeches won’t change lives, we need to win elections’



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here was no time to be nervous. On Wednesday, with just 45 minutes to go before Rishi Sunak delivered his Budget, the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves was told that her boss, Sir Keir Starmer, had tested positive for Covid. She was going to have to stand in for him and deliver Labour’s response to the Budget.

Sunak’s measures have been described as out-Labouring Labour, with lavish spending, but that didn’t put Reeves off. Despite having had hardly any warning, she stepped up and gave a punchy speech, looking the Prime Minister straight in the eye and forensically holding the government to account on the impact of their policies, with little in the Budget to help people struggling with inflation, rising tax, fuel and energy bills.

“At least the bankers on short-haul flights sipping champagne will be cheering this Budget today,” she said, to cheers from the chamber, before comparing Sunak and the Prime Minister a double act of conmen, with Boris Johnson making outlandish promises to distract people while the Chancellor picked their pockets.

“I hope I did a good job for my party,” she tells me afterwards, modestly. “My background is working as an economist and I had to put that to pretty good use having to unpick some of the Chancellor’s arguments.”

But answering the Tories was easy compared with what Reeves faced when we met. A few weeks before the Budget, she invited me to her old school, Harris Girls’ Academy Bromley, where I watched her get a grilling from a group of sixth formers.

“What is Labour’s biggest weakness?” asks one student, getting straight to the point. “Losing,” says Reeves. “We look inwards and spend loads of time arguing among ourselves. A tweet and an impassioned speech has never changed lives. You change lives by winning elections and forming governments.” The girls look impressed at her honesty.

Reeves is eloquent but approachable, in an ultramarine blue dress (“from M&S!”), and tells the girls to “ask me anything you like”. They oblige, with searing questions about the Prime Minister and Israel and Palestine.

She has gone back to school to show people like her that they too can be politicians, regardless of what their background is. “The way you change things is through politics,” she says. “We need Parliament to look like the rest of the country, it leads to better decisions. How can a group of white men who went to university make the decisions for all people?”

Reeves is in high spirits. She is enjoying a comeback – a rising star under Ed Miliband, as Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, she retreated under Jeremy Corbyn. But in May Keir Starmer appointed her Shadow Chancellor and she gave a rousing speech at party conference. Her daughter, aged eight, likes to quote it back to her: “When I told her I love her to the moon and back and she replied, ‘if you can afford to fly to the moon you can afford to pay your taxes on planet earth’,” says Reeves, laughing. “I was like, ‘what?’”



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