Keir Starmer’s leadership of the Labour party was plunged into crisis on Sunday as a plan to demote his deputy, Angela Rayner, was derailed by a backlash from her supporters, leading to a prolonged standoff between the pair.
Rayner was locked in negotiations with Starmer’s team for hours on Sunday after leaked plans to sack her as party chair and national campaigns coordinator triggered an outcry.
The move had been planned as the first in a wider reshuffle following a series of disappointing results in Thursday’s elections. But the announcement of further changes was delayed throughout the day as Starmer’s team tried to placate his livid deputy, who is widely seen as a potential future leadership challenger.
The row between Labour’s two most senior figures overshadowed more positive election results for the party over the weekend, including a resounding win in Wales.
Elections expert Prof John Curtice put Labour’s projected national share of the vote, calculated from local election results for the BBC, at 29%, seven points behind the Tories. That would be an improvement on the 12-point deficit at the 2019 general election but Curtice said it was “looking very similar to many a lacklustre performance under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership”.
Rayner has her own Labour power base because she was directly elected to the position of deputy leader, which she will keep in any event.
Senior Labour sources were confirming on Saturday evening that she had been asked to relinquish her elections role, as the party shakes up its approach to campaigns in the light of losses in Thursday’s Hartlepool byelection and on English councils.
But by Sunday morning, after senior figures including Andy Burnham signalled their dissent, the message had changed and Starmer loyalist Ian Murray, the shadow Scottish secretary, was claiming Rayner had been offered a bigger role.
“Angela Rayner hasn’t been sacked, as I understand it, Angela Rayner has been offered a significant promotion, to take her from the back office of the Labour party running elections, to the front office where she’s talking to the country,” he told Sophy Ridge on Sky News. He added: “Keir Starmer has decided to do a reshuffle of his frontbench to respond to those election results.”
Labour’s leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, urged his colleagues not to “pull each other apart”. “We shouldn’t be having these internal discussions,” he told the BBC’s Marr on Sunday. “We can’t look at each other. We’ve got to look outward and [be] forward looking across the country and we’ve got to make a credible case based on authenticity, on humility and energy and ideas.”
Former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “What public relations genius thought this was a good move on the day we were actually having successes?” Pointing out that he didn’t “hold a brief” for Rayner, having backed Rebecca Long-Bailey as deputy leader, he called the decision to try to sideline her “unfair”.
As Rayner and Starmer locked horns, meanwhile, other members of the shadow cabinet spent Sunday awaiting news of their fate, with shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds and chief whip Nick Brown among those expected to be moved aside.
Those tipped for promotion to more significant roles include Rachel Reeves. High-profile backbenchers such as Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn could also be brought back on to the frontbench.
It was Benn’s sacking by Corbyn in the fraught aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum that kicked off the mass resignations that ended with Owen Smith’s failed leadership challenge.
Starmer has also hired former adviser to Gordon Brown and experienced pollster Deborah Mattinson to oversee Labour’s strategy.
Several MPs suggested on Sunday that Starmer’s botched attempt to sideline Rayner had increased the chances he could face a leadership challenge in the coming months.
The membership of the leftwing Campaign Group of MPs, which is most sceptical of Starmer’s leadership, falls short of the 40 Labour MPs whose signatures would be needed to launch a race.
But Rayner’s treatment has sparked questions about Starmer’s leadership among some of his erstwhile supporters, while the size of the swing against Labour in Hartlepool caused alarm among MPs with slim majorities. “His moral authority is shot,” claimed one soft-left MP.
Leftwing former shadow cabinet minister Jon Trickett told the Guardian on Sunday: “I think that he’s not trustworthy. If it comes to the question of ought there to be a leadership challenge, I don’t think we should rule it out.”
Labour MPs will closely watch the byelection in Batley and Spen, triggered by the MP Tracy Brabin winning the post of West Yorkshire mayor and stepping down from parliament, creating a vacancy. Unlike Hartlepool, Batley and Spen did not see a significant Brexit party vote. If it was lost to the Tories it would be likely to spark panic in the parliamentary Labour party.
Starmer’s new team will have to face their Tory opposite numbers this week in a series of high-profile debates on the Queen’s speech, in which Boris Johnson’s government will set out legislative priorities for the coming months.
The Conservatives were gleeful in the wake of Thursday’s elections, with some Johnson allies suggesting he could be set for a decade in power if he can consolidate his party’s gains in former Labour heartlands.