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Starmer will only reveal his true face in power

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Early on in his leadership, Sir Keir Starmer would occasionally address the scale of the task he faced by saying that he needed to do in just five years what Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair accomplished over 13 years of their time as leader of the opposition. Most people who heard this description would respond by nodding, smiling and privately thinking that Starmer’s destiny would be to be another Kinnock: a leader whose biggest achievement was paving the way for someone else to take Labour out of the wilderness.

Now Starmer stands on the brink of pulling off his compressed leadership trick — but, inevitably, at considerable cost to his own standing. A source of Conservative comfort and Labour unease is that both parties’ focus groups show uncertainty and doubt about what Starmer’s real motivations are, with the Labour leader burdened by a well-earned reputation for duplicity.

How could it be otherwise? Starmer’s self-described mission if anything understated the scale of the task. He had not only to be Kinnock, Smith and Blair, but Michael Foot too. Foot might have overseen a split party but he would not have called for the UK to stop arming Ukraine, unlike Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. His shadow cabinet was one in which Neil Kinnock could comfortably sit, just as Kinnock’s front bench was able to provide a warm home to Tony Blair. Starmer’s willingness to wear the different faces of all these eras of his party is why he was able to win control — and now take Labour to the verge of office.

Or, at least, that’s the pro-Starmer account of the past few years. Another — and you hear this even from people sitting around the shadow cabinet table — is that Starmer’s success is down to luck. More than anything else, he is the beneficiary of a Conservative party that has imploded.

Given that Labour lost elections following the Suez crisis, the poll tax riots, the years of austerity and the Brexit vote, this charge doesn’t feel entirely fair. But it certainly is fair to say that he has managed to get Labour to a position where it is capable of taking office off the back of discontent with the Tories (rather than just enjoying better than expected defeats). To do so Starmer has had to woo and soothe all sides of the Labour party and to be more than usually devious and ruthless, even by the standards of his new profession.

That means no one, not even those nominally closest to the Labour leader, knows for sure what Starmer’s final face, that of Starmer-the-prime-minister, will look like. And this is the uncertainty at the centre of a quiet but vicious outbreak of briefing and criticism, which is shaping up either to be the last big internal fight of Labour’s time in opposition or the first of its time in office.

Put simply, whose side are you on: the boys’ club or the civil servants?

The “boys’ club”, or some variant thereof, is the term you will hear used to describe the coterie of influential and mostly male aides around Starmer — particularly but not exclusively from women in the shadow cabinet. When people complain about the boys’ club, they are really complaining about two individuals in particular: Morgan McSweeney, the architect of the leadership campaign that freed Labour from Corbynism, and Matthew Doyle, the party’s influential communications director. Both, broadly speaking, are Blairites. And the charge against them is that they have minimised the role of the shadow cabinet and of elected politicians to the extent that the Labour party is run not by its leader but by a small group of advisers.

The “civil servants” is how others complain about the former officials turned key players in the leader’s office. And they are really just complaining about one: Sue Gray, Whitehall’s former keeper-of-secrets turned Starmer’s chief of staff. The substance of the accusations about the power of this group is that they lack political instincts and fail to provide clear direction.

What these two centres of power, and the complaints about them, reflect is one of the few things that we do know for sure about Starmer: he values the importance of institutions and institutional memory. Right from the beginning of his leadership, he saw restoring lost expertise to the Labour party as one of his biggest tasks.

But prioritising institutional memory pulls Starmer in two very different directions. If you want to bring people with a history of winning elections back into Labour headquarters, your options, essentially, involve a choice between raising the mid-20th-century’s dead forebears or hiring Blairites. And if you want to hire people who know how Whitehall works, that means hiring former officials, many of whom are very far in their instincts from Blairite public service reformers.

When members of the shadow cabinet complain about these two groups, they are really complaining about Starmer. When they complain that the civil servants have no politics and no direction, they are airing one set of fears. When they complain about the rightwing tendency of the boys’ club, and how little they are consulted, they are airing another. But these are all, at base, manifestations of anxiety about the Labour leader. Labour politicians know it is thanks to Starmer’s ruthless wooing of all sides that they are within touching distance of power — but they also know that it may turn out that Starmer’s final face does not smile on them.

stephen.bush@ft.com

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