Keir Starmer shows he values experience and expertise with ministerial picks

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Keir Starmer’s plan for the first full week of this new Labour government is to look as busy as possible.

Continuing his tour of the UK, the prime minister met with first minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy first minister Emma Little-Pengelly in Belfast this morning. That’s after meeting John Swinney, the first minister of Scotland, yesterday. This afternoon, Starmer will travel to Wales to meet Vaughan Gething, the under-fire Labour FM.

Meanwhile, the work of government is rumbling into life here in Westminster. This morning, in her first speech as chancellor, Rachel Reeves outlined her plan to kickstart economic growth. Vowing to take “difficult decisions” to speed up infrastructure projects and unlock private investment, Reeves revealed she has asked Treasury officials for an “assessment of the state of our spending inheritance”.

The full findings will be presented to parliament before the summer recess.

The initial assessment, the UK’s first female chancellor said, shows that “had the UK grown at just the average rate of other OECD economies these last 14 years, our economy would be over £140 billion larger”.

As such, Reeves did not quite suggest that Labour had opened the books and found “things are even worse than we first thought” — a common refrain for any incoming government seeking to justify unpopular decisions on tax and spend. But she did remind her audience that Labour is inheriting the “worst set of circumstances since the Second World War”.

“What I have seen in the past 72 hours has only confirmed that”, Reeves added. The election campaign may be over, but Labour wants the Conservative Party to own its record on the economy.

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The prime minister is also filling up Labour’s ministerial ranks today, with a further 18 appointments announced this morning.

Starmer appointed the bulk of his cabinet over the weekend, with very few — if any — shock moves. The one big change was Lisa Nandy’s appointment as culture secretary, seizing the post earmarked for Thangam Debbonaire, who lost her seat to the Greens in Bristol Central. Nandy had served as shadow minister for international development in opposition, a role taken in government by Anneliese Dodds.

Dodds, whose position as Labour Party chair was handed to Ellies Reeves (sister of Rachel) over the weekend, will also attend cabinet.

Elsewhere, Emily Thornberry was snubbed for the post of attorney general, having shadowed the post in opposition. Starmer overlooked his old Labour leadership adversary, instead appointing human rights barrister Richard Hermer.

Expressing her disappointment in a statement today, Thornberry said: “I am very sorry and surprised not to be able to continue that work in government, but I wish all my brilliant colleagues well.”

Viewed in full, Starmer’s appointments — including the 18 new ministers of state appointed today — tell a story about the government he intends to lead. First, there is a significant deal of continuity from opposition, as Labour figures largely take up the posts they shadowed in the last parliament.

There is a subtle significance to this. The last Conservative government’s ministerial carousel, which infamously churned through six education secretaries in a single year, meant a post-holder was often new to the demands of their brief. With the transition from opposition to government, Starmer is ensuring that MPs who served as shadow ministers can assume the equivalent roles in government.

Additionally, the new prime minister values — perhaps above all else — expertise. Dame Diana Johnson and Sir Stephen Timms did not sit on Starmer’s shadow frontbench in opposition, rather they served as select committee chairs — scrutinising the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office respectively, where they have now been appointed as ministers. In Starmer’s cabinet, Darren Jones, Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn are also all former select committee chiefs.

In appointing his ministers, the PM is using the House of Lords to his advantage. So far, Starmer has appointed Richard Hermer as attorney general, former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (of Covid press conference fame) as science minister, former home secretary Jacqui Smith as education minister, Prison Reform Trust chair James Timpson as justice minister and Network Rail chairman Peter Hendy as transport minister. None of these individuals were elected as MPs last Thursday, and are therefore set to receive peerages in order to serve in government.

Experience is another priority for this prime minister, with Starmer appointing a host of former ministers who served in government from 1997-2010. Among the new appointments today include ex-ministers Lord Coaker (defence), Timms (DWP), Johnson (Home Office), Dame Angela Eagle (Home Office), Maria Eagle (defence) and Sir Chris Bryant (culture). Lord Livermore, who served as Gordon Brown’s chief adviser when chancellor, becomes a Treasury minister.

On top of this, Starmer’s cabinet already boasts an array of ex-ministers, including John Healey, Pat McFadden, David Lammy, Yvette Cooper, Ed Miliband, and Hilary Benn. (The latter three were all cabinet-ranking — as was the aforementioned Timms).

Elsewhere, Heidi Alexander, an ex-parliamentarian who was re-elected last week after a period away from Westminster, enters government immediately as a justice minister. That mirrors the advance of Douglas Alexander, a mainstay cabinet minister during the New Labour years, who was appointed as a trade minister last week, having been re-elected after almost a decade in the wilderness.

In the end, after 14 years deprived of power, Starmer has ensured that continuity, experience and expertise infuse his government. It’s a striking statement of intent as Labour’s “work of change” begins.

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