‘No-drama Starmer’: How Labour would govern

<span>Labour’s plan for the first 100 days in office includes axing the Rwanda asylum scheme on ‘day one’, reversing the de facto ban on onshore wind farms within weeks and bringing back top-down targets for housing delivery in every council area in England.</span><span>Illustration: Guardian Design</span>
Labour’s plan for the first 100 days in office includes axing the Rwanda asylum scheme on ‘day one’, reversing the de facto ban on onshore wind farms within weeks and bringing back top-down targets for housing delivery in every council area in England.Illustration: Guardian Design

When the exit polls are announced at 10pm on Thursday, Keir Starmer will be watching from Labour headquarters in London. “It’s just another working night,” he has told his senior team.

Putting the champagne on ice is not the Labour leader’s style. “It’s definitely not his thing,” says one shadow cabinet minister. “If he’s even tempted to have a drink on election night, it would be somebody handing him a bottle of beer.”

If the polls are accurate, just hours later he will be on his way back from Buckingham Palace to Downing Street, where he will address the nation from outside the famous black door of No 10.

Labour aides have played down the prospect of Starmer using the moment to set out his big vision of progressive liberalism. Instead, he will make a pragmatic argument for politics as a force for good that can make a material difference to people’s lives.

The first hours are intended to set the tone for the new government. Those closest to Starmer say that, unlike some of his more showy predecessors, he’s not performative. “It’s not politics as spectacle. It’s politics designed to get better outcomes,” says one insider.

As director of public prosecutions, one of Starmer’s proudest reforms was to replace paper files with digital ones. It may not have created many headlines, but it sped up the criminal justice process and meant fewer files were lost.

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His focus on simply doing what works is also likely to be at the heart of his Labour administration if the party takes power this week. Taken in isolation, some measures may not seem particularly ambitious, even a little dull. But his team insist they will be the building blocks that create something substantial.

“He will govern in the way in which he’s run the Labour party,” says one shadow cabinet minister. “He’s no-drama Starmer. He’s very methodical and analytical. He just gets on with things, he wants to fix problems.”

Tom Baldwin, Starmer’s biographer, uses the analogy of a climber stuck in a deep ravine. “The radical politician will announce he has an exciting new plan to climb out by his teeth. He gets lots of attention for doing so but ends up on his knees with no teeth.

“Starmer says: ‘Let’s take the footpath.’ Nobody pays much attention because it’s a bit boring. He’s halfway out of the ravine by the time they notice. Keir takes it step by step but he’s relentless in pursuit of his aim.”

Central to Starmer’s plans will be the creation of cross-departmental boards responsible for driving progress on Labour’s five missions: economic growth, the NHS, crime and justice, affordable green energy and improving opportunity.

Each board would draw on private sector expertise and could include outside experts – Dame Louise Casey is a name that crops up – as well as politicians. Starmer’s chief of staff, Sue Gray, is expected to oversee delivery from inside No 10.

There are no plans to scrap existing Whitehall departments – insiders believe that would take up too much energy – but the boards are aimed at “breaking down silos” and reducing delays and funding conflicts.

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One of Starmer’s first tasks on Friday morning, if he wins the election, will be to meet No 10 staff and form his cabinet. His existing top team is expected to move straight into government, with Rachel Reeves becoming Britain’s first female chancellor, and Angela Rayner heading the levelling up department.

While Starmer has sidestepped questions over whether David Lammy will be foreign secretary, and could be demoted to a more junior role, some aides suggest speculation is wide of the mark and appears to have been prompted by some of his colourful language about Donald Trump and Brexit while a backbencher.

Starmer’s cabinet could stay in post for five years, with the Labour leader said to have learned from the instability of chopping and changing in recent times.

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There could, however, be at least one vacancy if Labour fears over Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow culture secretary, losing her seat to the Greens are well founded. Some insiders also worry that Shabana Mahmood, the shadow justice secretary, could be at risk from a controversial independent candidate.

New expected “rising star” MPs such as Torsten Bell, Georgia Gould or Josh Simons are unlikely to be rewarded with immediate junior ministerial posts, aides say, not least because Starmer already has to trim his frontbench team to fit the ministerial payroll. However, Douglas Alexander, a former cabinet minister, is one of those tipped to step into a senior role should a vacancy arise.

Simon Case, the cabinet secretary whose authority was undermined by his handling of the Partygate scandal and who has his own complicated relationship with Gray, is expected to step down in January next year after overseeing the transition to the new government.

But many of Starmer’s political aides are expected to transfer over to No 10, led by campaign chief Morgan McSweeney. “He [McSweeney] could have any job he wanted,” one insider says. “But he knows his talents lie in political strategy, rather than governing.” He could advise Starmer on keeping together the coalition of voters required to win another term, and on how to counter the rise of the populist right.

In recent months, Gray and her deputy, Helene Reardon-Bond, set up a small team of advisers in an office away from the main Labour HQ in Southwark to work on plans for government. They have been fiercely protective. “Sue has put the drawbridge up on certain issues,” says one insider.

They have been holding meetings with the civil service so they can get to work on day one with Starmer’s “first steps” – including cutting NHS waiting times and launching a new border security command to stop people crossing the Channel in small boats.

But first they will have to deal with “Sue’s shit list” – a dossier drawn up to identify the most immediate problems that could overshadow Labour’s honeymoon period. Whitehall has put together its own “black swan” list of difficult issues for an incoming government, including local government finance, NHS funding and public sector pay negotiations to avert further strikes.

“These are things the civil service will tell us could blow up in our faces. But they might not,” one shadow minister says. “But in every department the government will probably have left us an in-tray of absolute shit.”

Prisons are at the top of the list, with governors warning they will run out of space within days, meaning Starmer will probably have to agree early release for inmates to avoid the criminal justice system grinding to a halt. “The red light is flashing,” says one official.

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While foreign policy has barely got a mention during the campaign, within 24 hours of taking office, Starmer would be taking calls from world leaders, with close attention paid to whether Joe Biden is top of the list, or Volodymyr Zelenskiy to underline ongoing support for Ukraine.

Next week’s three-day summit of Nato members in Washington DC would finally allow him to hold talks with the US president in person, although aides say Starmer is conscious that Donald Trump could end up back in the White House.

The summit will be dominated by Ukraine and, after Rishi Sunak argued the UK would be less safe under Labour, Starmer will want to stress the importance of defence and national security. He has already pledged to match Sunak’s multi-year funding support for Ukraine, and to encourage Nato allies to do the same.

Another diplomatic opportunity – and a chance to reset relations with European nations after the troubled Brexit years – arises on 18 July, when the UK hosts a meeting of the European Political Community (EPC) at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, the birthplace of Winston Churchill.

Labour’s plan for the first 100 days in office includes axing the Rwanda asylum scheme on “day one”, reversing the de facto ban on onshore windfarms within weeks and bringing back top-down targets for housing delivery in every council area in England. Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary, will begin talks with the British Medical Association to try to end long-running junior doctors’ strikes in England.

But it would be the Treasury that faces the most urgent challenge, that of driving growth. Officials are expected to be tasked within days to make submissions to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the fiscal watchdog, ahead of Reeves’s first budget in the autumn.

However, Labour figures played down suggestions Reeves could make a dramatic – and unexpected – policy announcement of the type Gordon Brown did just four days after winning in 1997 with Bank of England independence. “That was a big surprise,” one says. “Our big theme is to do what we’ve said we’re going to do.”

Economic growth underpins Starmer’s ambitions to restore public services but also to achieve the transformational change – for the NHS, devolution and the green transition – he wants to deliver over the next decade.

Starmer has rejected more austerity, but has also promised not to pull the levers of higher taxes or more borrowing, prompting scepticism from economists. His aim of the highest sustained growth in the G7 will not be easy.

Labour insiders say there are likely to be tensions between growing the economy speedily and doing so in a sustainable way. They might even be forced to adopt some of the “sticking plaster solutions” Starmer so fiercely condemned from the Tories.


One insider with knowledge of the party’s growth plan suggested there could be “pretty hair-raising stuff” ahead. “There will have to be almost Truss-ite deregulation, on things like planning and freeports, in the first two years, that will have to be balanced with the longer term. But it will have to be presented carefully so that it doesn’t look like Tory-lite, sugar-rush economics.”

Reeves has rejected the idea of a “doctor’s mandate”, saying that she already knows that Labour’s economic inheritance will be tough. But aides are planning to frame their early months in power around the idea the Tories crashed the economy, echoing George Osborne’s claims after the 2010 election that Labour had spent all the money.

Plans for Labour’s first king’s speech, on 17 July, are already well developed, and would include legislation giving the OBR the power to publish forecasts of any major tax and spending changes, after Liz Truss refused to follow the convention before her disastrous mini-budget.

There would be new laws for enhanced workers’ rights, to set up the state-owned GB Energy, a crime and policing bill to tackle antisocial behaviour, reform of the planning system and new mental health laws. Labour is expected to revive plans for a smoking ban, an end to no-fault evictions and a new football regulator, all of which Sunak promised but failed to enact.

The size of Labour’s putative majority will affect how easily the legislation gets through parliament. Regardless, Starmer is planning to appoint dozens of peers, as the Conservatives currently dominate the Lords. New appointees could include big business names, with one name said to be under discussion, Dame Sharon White, the outgoing boss of John Lewis.

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One of Starmer’s biggest challenges is set to be parliamentary standards after a string of scandals under the Tories further damaged public faith in politics. Within days, Labour would set up an ethics and integrity commission with the power to launch its own investigations. He has pledged to sack even the most senior politicians for serious breaches.

Yet Starmer won’t just be governing the country, but also his own party. With scores of new Labour MPs expected on the green benches, it will be a moment of maximum strength if he opts to deliver dramatic rule changes at Labour’s autumn party conference. Some insiders want to give MPs the sole power to choose the next leader (it is currently decided by members, unions and MPs) if the change takes place while Labour is in government.

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In the final days of the campaign, Starmer has been the target of Tory attacks over his working hours after he told a radio station that he and his wife, Vic, tried to “carve out” time with their two teenage children on Friday nights. The Conservatives conveniently omitted his caveat there were “exceptions” to this family rule.

But it gave a telling insight into how he might survive the rigours of Downing Street life. “I don’t believe in the theory you are a better decision-maker if you don’t allow yourself the space to be a dad and to have time for your kids,” he said. “Actually, it helps me, it takes me away from the pressure, it relaxes me.”

In the same vein, he has told friends he will attend the Euros final in Berlin on 14 July if England make it that far. While his security has already warned he can’t pop into his favourite pub, the Pineapple in Kentish Town, for a quick pint, he would continue watching his beloved Arsenal.

And in a sign that his determination stretches beyond his professional life into his personal one, he added: “I’ve played football pretty much every week since I was 10 years old and I’m not going to stop now.”