Meet the top teams: the key election advisers to Sunak and Starmer

<span>Team Tory: clockwise from top left, Isaac Levido, Nerissa Chesterfield, Oliver Dowden, James Forsyth, Richard Holden and Liam Booth-Smith.</span><span>Composite: Various</span>
Team Tory: clockwise from top left, Isaac Levido, Nerissa Chesterfield, Oliver Dowden, James Forsyth, Richard Holden and Liam Booth-Smith.Composite: Various

General elections are simultaneously an individual battle for party leaders and a mass effort by thousands of activists.

In the middle sit the party’s top teams, the half a dozen or so key aides and advisers who will play a major role in how the campaign plays out.


Isaac Levido: The Australian political strategist and former protege of Lynton Crosby ran the Conservatives’ 2019 election campaign with very obvious success. This time could prove more difficult. Levido, who runs his own private consultancy, Fleetwood Strategy, has influence. He is thought to have been behind Sunak’s U-turn on net zero targets. He has been trusted to brief Conservative MPs, urging them to stop the infighting and unite. Levido reportedly warned against a July poll. It remains to be seen if Sunak should have listened to him.

Richard Holden: The Conservative party chair is in the odd position of taking a leading role in a campaign for which he does not currently have a seat to fight, given his North West Durham constituency is being abolished as part of boundary changes. But with a mass of Tory MPs quitting, a safe(ish) seat is likely to be found. He has only been an MP since 2019, but he is a Tory veteran having done time in the press office and as a special adviser to a series of ministers. He is likely to be the party’s main attack voice. Expect to see his face a lot.

Oliver Dowden: The man known as “Olive” in Conservative circles, the legacy of an early-career typo, is deputy prime minister but arguably remains as much a creature of the party as of government. He was David Cameron’s chief of staff before becoming an MP in 2015 and has long been seen as a trusted minister for tricky broadcast rounds despite a default resting face that can make him look like an outraged vicar. The former culture secretary is highly trusted by Sunak.

James Forsyth: The ultimate Sunak-era insider, the former journalist was educated alongside the PM at Winchester, and Sunak was best man at Forsyth’s wedding to Allegra Stratton, the journalist who later worked as his head of communications. A former political editor of the Spectator, in late 2022 he joined his old friend in Downing Street as political secretary and de facto chief aide. It was Forsyth who reportedly encouraged the PM to go for a snap election.

Liam Booth-Smith: It was seeing Booth-Smith wearing a suit inside No 10 on Wednesday that prompted officials to start predicting an election, given the fondness of Sunak’s chief of staff for more casual clothes. Booth-Smith also stands out in Downing Street for his background. He was raised by a single mother in a home on a council estate in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, getting an assisted place at a local private school. Viewed as a major power inside No 10, he initially worked for Boris Johnson, but got to know Sunak as part of a “joint economic unit” set up to keep an eye on the then chancellor.

Nerissa Chesterfield: Another long-timer in the Sunak firmament and a constant presence at the PM’s side, Chesterfield has been head of communications at No 10 for nearly a year, and was Sunak’s press secretary before then. Unflappable and very hard-working, she started out at Vote Leave under Dominic Cummings, and has handled communications for Sunak since he was chancellor in 2020.


Morgan McSweeney: Labour’s head of campaigns, McSweeney is completely tied to the Keir Starmer project, and if the party wins a majority he will have a case for being given nearly as much credit as its leader. A key player in the influential Labour Together thinktank, McSweeney is a perennial backroom figure, focusing on areas such as candidate selection and message discipline. If his first foray into Labour-based elections ended badly – he led Liz Kendall’s bid for the party leadership in 2015 when she got 4.5% of the vote – he did better in helping Starmer take over in 2020. Now he hopes to go one better.

Pat McFadden: A long-time party insider and fixer, the Wolverhampton South East MP is Labour’s national campaigns coordinator, and as shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster he is also in effect minister for the broadcast round. His will become as familiar a face as Holden’s in the coming weeks. An MP for nearly 20 years, he is one of the rare Starmer insiders with direct government experience. In opposition he has filled shadow roles as varied as the Foreign Office and the Treasury, while largely sitting out the Corbyn era. He is seen as a reassuring presence and a safe pair of hands.

Sue Gray: Unusually for someone who spent much of her career as a civil servant, Gray has a high profile, the result of her key role in investigating lockdown-breaking parties in Johnson’s Downing Street, and her decision to move to Starmer’s team after a mandated six-month break. Gray had spent her entire working life in the civil service, other than a period in the 1980s when she ran a pub in Newry, Northern Ireland. She was drafted in to lead the Partygate inquiry after Simon Case, the permanent secretary, had to step aside after reports he had attended one of the events.

Related: Why the Scottish vote matters to Starmer and Sunak

Jonathan Ashworth: As shadow health minister during Covid, Ashworth is a familiar figure to some voters, but he now has a more behind-the-scenes role as shadow paymaster general, a Cabinet Office title often handed to cross-government fixers, arm-twisters and decision-forcers. Much of Ashcroft’s work in this sense has been readying Labour for possible government, including being the first line of scrutiny for policy ideas put forward by shadow ministers. Ashworth’s move from health to work and pensions and then his current role was seen by some as a demotion. Others, himself included, would argue he is more central than ever.

Ellie Reeves: McFadden’s deputy on the campaigns team, Reeves has been a party stalwart from her student days, and MP for the south London seat of Lewisham West and Penge since 2017. She did not flourish during the Corbyn period, and faced potential deselection by her local party over her criticism of one of his decisions. Formerly a shadow justice minister, her role on the campaigns team is more focused on logistics, with McFadden leading on the political side. And yes, she is Rachel Reeves’s younger sister.

Matthew Doyle: Starmer’s head of communications, and his representative on Earth for the media, Doyle is as ubiquitous a presence by the Labour leader’s side as Chesterfield is for Sunak. A veteran of the Tony Blair years as former political director of the then PM’s office, he returned to Labour after a long period in the charity and private sector. He will play a crucial role in the election, not only trying to ward off the inevitable attacks from the Tory-facing press, but also seeking to balance endless media claims on the man assumed to be prime minister in waiting.