Voices: For Keir Starmer’s new cabinet, stability is the change

Keir Starmer has appointed a ‘no change’ cabinet  (AP)
Keir Starmer has appointed a ‘no change’ cabinet (AP)

When I spoke to Keir Starmer at his election count in Holborn and St Pancras at 3am on Friday, he said he was “calm” and looking forward to the challenge the morning would bring.

We discussed Tony Blair, and how he had faced a similar moment in a similar frame of mind 27 years earlier. Blair knew nothing of government when he was elected, and struggled to make the machine deliver the changes he wanted, but after 10 years in power had become a highly effective leader.

Blair had been “very helpful”, Starmer told me. The former prime minister had been texting him with advice on how to manage the transition to government.

We saw the first fruits of that advice later on Friday afternoon, when Starmer appointed a “no change” cabinet, translating all of his shadow cabinet into the departments they were shadowing. The only exception was Lisa Nandy, who was made secretary of state for culture to take the place of Thangam Debbonaire, who lost her Bristol Central seat to the Green Party.

That means that nearly all shadow ministers took the jobs they had prepared for, which should improve their chances of getting to grips with the challenges they face. In the Orwellian slogan coined by Rachel Reeves, the new chancellor, “stability is the change”: Labour had come to power promising to “end the chaos” of the Tory years, and one way to do that was to avoid personnel changes and departmental reorganisations.

So steady is the ship of state that not even the silliest name for a government department, Levelling Up, has been changed, as Angela Rayner took over as its secretary of state in addition to her role as deputy prime minister.

The other mark of Blair’s advice was the appointment of Professor Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, as a science minister in the House of Lords. I had been surprised to see Sir Patrick at the Christmas reception at the Tony Blair Institute at the end of last year: a few weeks later it was announced that he would be working with the institute on “advising political leaders globally on their reform programmes”.

Science is a big part of Blair’s pitch for the centre-left to lay its claim to the future, which doesn’t come naturally to Starmer, but that is why it seems sensible to have a minister who knows something about it.

The emphasis on people who know their stuff was continued with the appointment of James Timpson as prisons minister, again in the Lords. Timpson, as chief executive of the shoe repair company that prides itself on employing ex-offenders, understands rehabilitation and is a good person to have in charge of getting a grip on the underlying causes of the prison overcrowding crisis.

Blair talked last week about the difficulty of effecting change in government – that the problem is not a conspiracy by the deep state to obstruct radical reform, but “a conspiracy for inertia”. He understood, by the end of his decade in office, that the way to overcome that inertia is through leadership, hard work and teamwork. Slogans and new institutions are not enough, although you do need to get the institutions right and some slogan-like names of institutions can be effective, such as Sure Start centres.

“When you’re running for office, you have to be the great persuader,” Blair said in a podcast interview. “The moment you get into office, you really have to be the great chief executive. Those two skill sets are completely different. A lot of political leaders fail because they’ve failed to make the transition.”

Starmer may not seem like a persuader on the Blair model, but his achievement in this election was comparable, and comparably impressive. Peter Mandelson, Labour’s campaign director in 1997, said on Friday that he was told then, “‘Surely Peter Mandelson, you would agree that this is not a victory for the Labour Party? It’s a rejection of the Conservative Party. It’s a rejection of the old Tories; it’s not an embrace of New Labour. Well, I should think that within about 24 hours, that will change.”

It should change, because Starmer has won big under the rules, and is entitled to respond to those who say the Tories handed it to him on a plate that your opponent’s mistakes are no guarantee of victory. As he told me at 3am on Friday: “We have been working for this for a long time.”

I get the impression that he has given a great deal more thought to his transition to the “chief executive skill set” than Blair did in 1997. Then, Blair was superstitious about taking winning for granted and refused to do much preparation until polling day.

This time, Starmer, with the advantage as he so often reminds us of having actually run a public-sector organisation, the Crown Prosecution Service, has been more rational about preparing for government.

Including taking advice from someone who, by the end of his time in No 10, had become quite good at it.