Week-in-Review: Labour’s Diane Abbott U-turn reveals the power of Rayner

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What can we learn about Keir Starmer’s Labour Party from the botched handling of the Diane Abbott row? The veteran MP, who sat around the shadow cabinet table with Starmer barely five years ago, seemed genuinely exit-bound this week, with her fate due to be considered by Labour’s candidate-barring National Executive Committee. As briefings pinged into SW1 newsrooms and with Starmer conspicuously shtum, the ground was being prepared for another symbolic excommunication.

Or so it seemed. Early this week, the fate-settling NEC meeting remained but a dot on the political horizon as a series of senior Labour partisans began to publicly express their misgivings. Abbott, the first Black woman in parliament, must be “given the respect she deserves”, intervened London mayor Sadiq Khan; the row is “a fight not worth having at this stage”, Jess Phillips declared; even Wes Streeting disclosed he was “not particularly” comfortable with the situation.

After a while, of course, such interventions amass as a powerful political force, compelling any leader — poll lead notwithstanding — to revaluate their under-fire stance. But in this particular episode, no dissenting voice proved as potent, or presumedly so decisive, than that of Angela Rayner.

The deputy leader’s office, of course, confers genuine legitimacy on the comments of its incumbent. Anas Sarwar’s statement on Friday morning, “I agree with Angela”, was singularly revealing in this regard. In the end then, it didn’t take Starmer long to entirely abandon his line on Abbott; not even a Friday morning media round helmed by loyal shadow minister Peter Kyle, who stressed the party’s “future”, could save it.

After all, the most striking thing about Rayner’s decision to wade into the Abbott row was the apparent calculation. On Thursday, with Starmer already under concerted pressure, his official deputy delivered the same message to a series of media outlets, including ITV NewsSky NewsThe Guardian and The Daily Record. “I don’t see any reason why Diane Abbott can’t stand as a Labour MP going forward”, was the line.

Having just been cleared by the Greater Manchester Police over claims relating to her historic living arrangements, Rayner’s media blitz was likely dreamt up in Labour campaign HQ as a comeback tour. But with the Abbott row fast burgeoning, what resulted was far more significant: not merely a Rayner revival, but a political comeback complete with a vivid rebuke of Starmer on the issue of the day.

Suffice it to say, such a divide between Labour leader and deputy would be unsustainable at the best of times — but during an election, the optics were simply untenable.

The order of events points to one simple interpretation: Rayner moved and Starmer flinched. But here’s the more complicated point this prevailing reading begs: was Starmer marshalled by Rayner into the new position before he was ready — or was this a stance Starmer had no intention of adopting? The Labour leader’s undignified delay might, perhaps, suggest the latter. 

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The Rayner-Starmer dynamic: origins and evolution 

The Rayner and Starmer duet is, of course, a political accident — borne of Labour’s internal election system. Party rules provide the deputy leader and leader parallel mandates; and harmony between the hitched politicians is far from guaranteed (see Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson’s unholy matrimony). Rayner, along these lines, has previously referred to her relationship with Starmer as akin to an “arranged marriage”, one which has “evolved” over time. 

Speaking to the Daily Record on Thursday, Rayner described herself as an “extrovert” and Starmer as “introvert”. The implication — and maybe the reality — is that their contrasting styles complement each other; but this hasn’t always been the case: “We get on really well now”, Rayner went on to explain. “I think in the early days we were a bit yin and yang.”

In May 2021 (the early days), the political cataclysm that was the Hartlepool by-election saw Starmer consider his very future as Labour leader. At the time, however, the public reckoning focussed squarely on the role(s) of Rayner, who served then as party chair and national campaign coordinator. 

The drama that followed has passed into Labour folklore: a botched attempt at a shadow cabinet reshuffle prompted a revolt among Rayner’s allies, compelling Starmer to appease his deputy with a series of more prominent posts. 

The result was an elaborate, twenty-two-word job title as Rayner emerged as shadow first secretary of state, shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow secretary of state for the future of work (not to mention deputy Labour leader). “The more titles he feeds her, the hungrier she is likely to become”, a buoyant Boris Johnson quipped at the following session of prime minister’s questions. 

Fortunately for Starmer, Johnson’s appraisal hasn’t held true. But while the deputy leader-leader relationship has changed markedly since this apparent nadir, Rayner’s influence in the party, and willingness to flaunt it, has persisted. 

The Rayner-Starmer dynamic: the politics

In a recent interview with ex-Labour adviser and Starmer autobiographer Tom Baldwin, Rayner delivered what I consider as the definitive take on her boss. Labour’s deputy leader referred to Starmer, intriguingly, as “the least political person I know in politics”. 

I have written before about how Starmer’s ruthlessness — what many perceive as factional belligerence — is actually underpinned by his strikingly apolitical nature. It is, in the end, Starmer’s lack of loyalties or clear association with a party tradition (he has only been an MP since 2015) that empowers his activism in and around his party. Shaped by 13 years of failed forebears, Starmer’s politics is entirely ends-focussed; electoral victory serves as his lone North Star. At best, his decisions’ intra-party implications are an afterthought. 

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Consider the Abbott row in these terms. The former shadow home secretary could be viewed, by some loyal Starmer adviser (“boys club” member), as a still-conspicuous symbol of the Corbynite ancien régime — and thus a potential obstacle on the Labour leader’s path to power. 

Starmer’s deputy, it follows, may view her role as the corrective to the Labour leader’s ruthlessly apolitical nature; certainly, that seems to have been the case with the row over Abbott, the reverence for whom Starmer’s inner circle drastically underestimated. 

In turn then, Rayner has made it plain that her job is not merely to serve as a one-way link between the broader party and Starmer’s “change” project. As we look forward to a likely Labour government, the Rayner-Starmer relationship looks set to emerge, not merely as an intriguing sub-plot — but a defining dynamic.

When Starmerism stops working

It is in moments of intense scrutiny, such as the Abbott row, that the substance and objectives of Starmerism are best identified. The Labour leader saw excommunicating the veteran MP as a natural step on his path to victory — not an act in itself that could ensure triumph, but part of a broader symbolic shift in the party’s personnel and political image. In Abbott’s place would have marched another Starmerite; his plan to build an effective, loyal parliamentary machine would have advanced one seat further. 

The outcome, however, was that the row over Abbott — something which Starmer, all other things being equal, would revel in — became an obstruction. Starmer’s mission to reshape his party was framing the political conversation, but no longer in terms that LOTO could control. As such, by eventually reconciling with Abbott’s status as a Labour candidate, Starmer was forced to go against his instincts in order to pursue his primary goal.

In this way, consider other such moments when Starmerism has been unexpectedly shaken: I count three, including the Abbott row, in recent months. The first relates to the fate of Labour’s £28 billion green pledge, which was drastically rolled back in February after weeks of feverish speculation and apparent indecision in LOTO. At the time, I explained the delay as Starmer being torn between diverging personal, ideological and political motivations. Starmer owes his place in parliament to Ed Miliband, former party leader and patron saint of the £28bn; the plan, moreover, underpinned Labour’s offering on clean energy. But facing ruthless Conservative attacks over the profligate “tax and spend” approach, the Labour leader eventually, painstakingly, caved. 

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Then, only days later, Labour’s unnecessary delay in axing disgraced Rochdale by-election candidate Azhar Ali amounted to a genuine debacle, as a renewed antisemitism crisis gripped the party. The problem here was the Labour leader’s political rationale: he wanted to win that by-election and lock out George Galloway. Starmerism was once more at odds with itself.

Rayner in government

These previous moments of intense pressure did not directly impinge on Angela Rayner, in either her official (policy briefs) or unofficial (party link to “change” project) capacities. 

The Diane Abbott row, therefore, has been singularly instructive as to the Labour deputy leader’s retained status in the party after months of relative quiet. Rayner’s power in Labour, with Starmer once more wobbling, has been restated at this most crucial of junctures: the cusp of power.

After all, the deputy Labour leader is not seen as central to the Starmer project — underpinned privately by faceless advisers and publicly, typically, by one of Sir Keir, Rachel Reeves or Pat McFadden. As such, while Rayner looks set to play an immensely important role in a Starmer government, she is not one of the Labour leader’s praetorian guard. It makes her strikingly, even uniquely, powerful.

In a podcast interview with the i newspaper, recorded last November, Rayner suggested that a significant part of her job involves “challenging” Starmer, and vice versa. She also declared that Labour needs to be more than just “a load of Keir Starmers” — perhaps a prescient point in light of recent Starmtrooper strides. Indeed, as the Labour leader’s loyalists march towards power, and likely fast up the greasy poll in the coming parliament, Rayner’s fiefdom in the office of deputy PM will remain untouchable.

Of course, Rayner could begin making a further calculation when in office: that if Starmer falls, she — if only by Labour’s official line of inheritance — is his presumptive successor.

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on X/Twitter here.

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