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Starmer might be ‘boring’, but his potential premiership won’t be dull

Starmer's critics see him as 'limited' but he is also ruthless and will shake-up how government is run, from centralising power to overhauling the civil service

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - MAY 24: Labour leader Keir Starmer speaks to supporters during the launch of the Scottish Labour general election campaign at Caledonia House on May 24, 2024 in Glasgow, Scotland. Labour leader Keir Starmer is in Scotland to launch the party’s election campaign alongside his Scottish counterpart Anas Sarwar

To his detractors Sir Keir Starmer is boring. He is, so say he critics, a limited politician with none of the natural communication skills of Sir Tony Blair, someone who would be more suited to managing a bank than running the country.

But to write off the likely next incumbent of Number 10 as dull is to miss the point. As leader of the opposition, Starmer has been one of the most ruthless politicians in recent history.

He has taken on the hard left and won, mounted a brutal reshuffle and readily dispensed with flagship policies in a bid to bolster Labour’s economic credentials. His approach to politics – perhaps unsurprising for someone who arrived in Westminster after a long career outside – is almost apolitical, unfettered by the usual tribal loyalties and ties that are typical of the Labour Party.

Starmer’s plans to centralise power

With just weeks to go before polling day on 4 July, Starmer and his allies are working on plans to centralise power and consolidate his position if, as expected, he wins the election.

That process is well underway. In the run-up to prime minister Rishi Sunak calling the general election, a series of discreet meetings took place between members of the shadow cabinet and the country’s most senior civil servants. On the agenda was Labour’s plans for power: how it intends to govern and grow the economy, and what it hopes to achieve if it wins.

The shadow cabinet was drilled to take the meetings seriously. Labour has now been out of power for so long that only seven members of the shadow cabinet have previously served as ministers in government.

In the run-up to the talks, shadow ministers attended a series of boot camps in a bid to bring them up to speed. Here, they were briefed on how the machinery of government works, the intricacies of departmental budgets and working with the civil service.

Political advisers were also given a run-down by Blair-era veterans. They were advised to avoid at all costs emulating Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed spin doctor from The Thick of It. “Don’t be a knob,” was the maxim.

Sue Gray, a former senior civil servant who is now Starmer’s chief of staff, has also been giving members of the shadow cabinet one-to-one sessions on what to expect from the potential future departments.

Change at the top of the civil service

While some emerged from their meetings with civil servants impressed, others were concerned. Having spent so long in opposition they believe that the government is in need of a radical overhaul and fundamental change of approach, including the personnel. They came back from the meetings wondering if the civil servant who hosted them is the right person for the job.

There will almost certainly be change at the top. Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, is entering the final stages of his turbulent tenure in the role. Having been drafted in by Boris Johnson from the royal household, Case has been a controversial figure.

He was seen as being too close to Johnson during his premiership, but under Sunak the reverse is true. The current prime minister is said to invest his faith in his close political advisers and aides, with Case a more peripheral figure.

Starmer and Gray are thought to like Tamara Finkelstein, the permanent secretary at the department for environment, food and rural affairs, and Sir Olly Robbins, who served as chief Brexit negotiator under Theresa May. There is likely to be a wider changing of the guard among permanent secretaries across government departments.

A structural overhaul of cabinet government

Starmer is also planning a structural overhaul as he seeks to recreate the level of control he has enjoyed as leader of the opposition. Cabinet government, as it traditionally exists, will be changed.

He is looking at creating an executive committee that would sit above cabinet and make key decisions. The so-called gang of four would include Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, Angela Rayner, the deputy leader, and Pat McFadden, the national campaign co-ordinator.

He will also create a new policy delivery unit, reporting directly to him, that would implement his priorities across Whitehall. He is considering appointing a senior figure from the world of business to run it. Starmer and his aides believe it would be an attractive offer: the individual would become one of the most powerful people in the country at a stroke.

There is scepticism, however, about whether changing structures will be enough to address the underlying fundamentals needed to transform Britain’s fortunes. Starmer has put going for growth at the heart of his plans for government after years of drag and stagnation. But the actual policy levers available for doing so are few and far between.

In a bid to counter traditional concerns about Labour and the economy Starmer and shadow chancellor Reeves have put fiscal rectitude first. But the same fiscal rules that the party has embraced risk stymying attempts to kick-start the economy.

Other options to encourage growth, such as increased migration, are already off the table. Given that one of Starmer’s central missions is to secure the highest levels of sustained growth in the G7 group of developed nations, Labour’s approach may need to be reconsidered after the election.

There remain many uncertainties about Starmer’s potential premiership, but one thing is certain: it is unlikely to be dull.

Steven Swinford is the political editor of The Times.

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