Keir Starmer has moved to ease Labour party tensions with an address to staffers and shadow cabinet members praising his deputy Angela Rayner after a bitter briefing war.
The Labour leader emerged from a bruising weekend during which he reshuffled his shadow cabinet – including removing Rayner as party chair – and was warned by leftwing MPs he could face a leadership challenge.
Speaking on Monday, Starmer said the party was “too internally focused” rather than concentrating on winning votes. Addressing his new shadow cabinet – where former shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds is replaced with his close ally Rachel Reeves – Starmer explicitly praised Rayner, saying she would now have a far more high-profile role “taking the fight to the Tories”.
Rayner’s allies have briefed that she has emerged more powerful in her new role as shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, which will make her Michael Gove’s opposite number. She will take charge of the party’s attack lines on Tory sleaze and also take on a new shadow cabinet brief looking at the future of work.
Starmer said Dodds, who has remained tight-lipped and loyal through the weekend’s drama, would undertake a policy review as party chair and also join Labour’s governing national executive committee (NEC).
Starmer is understood to have been intensely frustrated that the row over the reshuffle meant that he could not visit places where Labour had exceeded expectations after an set of disappointing election results that were disappointing overall.
The Guardian understands Starmer will visit sites of key victories like the West of England mayoralty and Wales, where Welsh Labour had one of their best results – though he must remain in London for Tuesday’s Queen’s speech.
Tensions between Rayner and Starmer’s team still simmered on Monday morning as Rayner tweeted pointedly praising Labour victories over the weekend.
“If Keir wanted to celebrate the good results he would have gone to the West of England on Saturday instead of blowing up the party by trying to sack Angela,” one ally said.
Addressing his shadow cabinet, sources said that Starmer lavished praise on the Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, calling it “remarkable” how many people on doorsteps had praised his leadership through the pandemic, as well as praising the performance of each individual metro mayor victory.
In a peace offering to Rayner, whose allies had briefed she was being scapegoated for the election results when she was removed from the role of party chair, Starmer said that he alone was responsible.
“To be clear, I take responsibility, nobody else. I lead the Labour party and it is entirely on me,” he said. Starmer told his shadow cabinet that he would spend the summer speaking to voters who did not back Labour instead of “having rallies of the faithful” – a dig at the previous Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Starmer earlier spoke to Labour staffers, though did not take questions, saying they had put their heart and soul into the campaigns and there was “no hiding the bitter disappointment of the results, particularly in Hartlepool”.
However, he said the party was “still too internally focused – we are not good enough yet at focusing on voters … we’ve been losing elections for 11 years”.
He said Labour would spell out its vision for a “post-pandemic, post-austerity Britain outside the EU” over the coming months. That, he said, would include “changing the culture” of politics. “For too long people have been set against each other, old versus young, black versus white, town versus city. Our values are about bringing them together.”
Starmer will also make changes to the NEC. As well as a seat for Dodds, Starmer will give a shadow cabinet seat on the powerful body to Shabana Mahmood, who has been promoted to the shadow cabinet and who previously represented the back benches on the NEC.
That move will open up a new position for a backbench MP – which insiders said was likely to go to Bradford South’s Judith Cummins, a loyal supporter of Starmer who co-founded the Labour for the North group of northern MPs.