Has Rachel Reeves replaced Angela Renner as Starmer’s de facto number two?

When Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer descended on snowy Davos this January, ready to shake hands with business leaders in the Swiss Alps, he did not descend alone. Instead, the Labor leader attended the annual celebration of international capital flanked by his shadow chancellor and trusted Treasury sidekick, Rachel Reeves.

The Davos double-act of Reeves and Starmer was a further signal of the pair’s political affinity, with the two seemingly glued together as Labor prepares its election pitch for the start of 2023. Indeed, British politics edge closer to an election expected in late 2024. More integral Reeves and Starmer appear.

The ever-tightening duplicity is created first and foremost by Starmer’s desire to rebrand Labor as economically credible and good for money — adapting to the political incentives offered by post-Trossonomics politics. It is perhaps little surprise that the former Bank of England economist has taken a front row position in Labour’s outwardly branded “prawn cocktail offensive 2.0”. The push also appears to be paying off, with Reeves claiming to have spoken to hundreds of CEOs since becoming shadow chancellor in 2021.

But Labour’s new favorite double-act naturally calls into question deputy leader Angela Rayner, officially Starmer’s number two. While Reeves has taken a front-and-centre position in Starmer’s recent policy announcements and business inquiries, Renner has largely been reduced to meddling in the Commons dispatch box, shadowing the work of Sunak confidant Oliver Dowden.

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It’s one of the cruel rules of opposition politics, so enamored with the spotlight over time that the rise of one spokesperson almost always equals and reverses the fall of another. Something similar seems to be at play here.

Of course, Reeves’ unstoppable rise to the top of the Labor Party hierarchy is at least partly attributable to the steady stream of financial events in Britain in recent months. As shadow chancellor, a position he held for less than two years, Reeves clashed with four Treasury chiefs over economic policy, putting them to work on both “mini” and large budgets.

Needless to say, labor officials were impressed. In the spring 2022 statement, Reeves slammed then-chancellor Rishi Sunak’s economic proposals. He accused the then chancellor of living in “sunkland” where the belief in lower taxes actually translated into higher National Insurance contributions. “Curious and curious”, continued the Shadow Chancellor.

But since the collapse of the mini-budget in September, Reeves’ profile has seen the most significant rise. Sir Keir knows that his shadow chancellor’s fortitude in the face of the Conservative government’s frequent fiscal do-overs presents Labor with perfect optics. Reeves’ continued presence, as opposed to four separate chancellors, creates a sense of political continuity and policy continuity.

Crucially, the good optics are matched by Reeves’ impressive CV, from which business leaders can only infer financial acumen. The shadow chancellor is a former economist who has worked variously at the Bank of England and the British Embassy in Washington. It can hardly scare anyone with a business background.

Furthermore, like Starmer, Reeves presents as serious, messagey and predictable. He is neither too pessimistic nor too cheerful about the state of the country, and his speeches reveal a man bent on fiscal reform rather than big spending. It’s ultimately little wonder that Reeves and Starmer have developed such a rapport.

Then there’s Angela Renner, the team’s vice-captain and therefore Starmer’s nominal number two. Whereas Starmer sees Reeves as predictable and restrained, Renner’s reputation is that of a direct politician whose effective communication can occasionally attract bad headlines. It’s an approach that comes with the potential problem of a risk-averse starmer, as we saw during the 2021 conference season, when Rainer labeled the Conservative Party a “scumbag” at an event. This was embarrassing for Starmer, who categorically confirmed that he would not have used such language.

Potential strains in the Renner-Sturmer relationship also erupted in the 2021 shadow cabinet reshuffle, which saw the Labor leader make a botched attempt to oust his deputy, the then party chair. Rayner’s ties to the Corbynite Old Regime were blamed by Starmer allies for the Hartlepool by-election defeat by the Conservatives, but a briefing war between the two offices ultimately strengthened Rayner’s position. Instead of demotion, Rainer emerged in a significantly beefed-up role as shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, as well as a new role as shadow secretary for the future of work. The episode underlined that Renner still has a significant support base in the party which, combined with his elected position as deputy leader, makes him essentially unsinkable.

However, this is not the first time that the labor leader and deputy leader did not see eye to eye. Previous iterations of the Labor Party leadership under Jeremy Corbyn and his deputy Tom Watson were considered deeply divided. Both Watson and Corbyn had huge support bases in the party, but they drew on very different political traditions and their appeals were often at odds among MPs and grassroots. There have been splits at times, particularly over Brexit and the handling of anti-Semitism. Watson later revealed that he voted for leadership challenger Wayne Smith in 2016 despite his position as deputy leader.

But perceived political differences between a leader and vice-leader need not create such difficulties. A relevant case study is Tony Blair and John Prescott, who held the top two positions in the Labor Party from 1994-2007. On the surface, Prescott and Blair could not have been more different. One was an old union-firebrand and the other a young party modernizer. But Blair refused to see Prescott as a liability, instead using his strength and “old Labour” heritage as a core of New Labor within the party – giving Blair’s rebrand vital credibility.

Of course, the political context has changed significantly since the early 2000s and the relationship between overlapping Labor factions is now much more complex than between “old” and “new” Labour. But, like Prescott, Rainer may begin to be seen by Starmer as an asset in his own right – with his explosive government-bashing skills harnessed in the Commons and other contributions within the boundaries set by the leadership.

In the end, the new dynamic at the top of the Labor Party is probably more about Reeves’ perceived strength than Rayner’s perceived weakness. The shadow chancellor ticks off Stormerism at its core – it’s metropolitan, moderate, business-friendly and reliable – it sees economic credibility as central to the winning pitch. So in Reeves’ political profile, Starmer has stumbled upon a seriously capable sidekick.

It is his CV, whose subtext is starkerism distilled, that has made Reeves Labour’s de facto number two.