A pretty good Cabinet, with caveats

by Rob Marchant

A Labour government. Let’s first just take a moment to savour those words.

Having sat in the Strangers Gallery just over a year ago and somewhat despaired as to the overall quality of the front bench, it looks to me that Starmer seems to have made a pretty good fist of delivering his first Cabinet.

The four Great Offices of State are unchanged from their Shadow incarnation: Starmer, Reeves, Lammy and Cooper. Reeves was brought in as a welcome safe pair of hands, with genuinely relevant career experience, to the Shadow Chancellor role after Anneliese Dodds’s unremarkable year in it, and has been well received since then. Cooper is a seasoned and respected politician, with Cabinet experience and five years of Home Affairs exposure chairing the Select Committee. Lammy we’ll come back to.

At the next level, Reynolds, Kendall, Healey, Phillipson, Kyle are all solid appointments. And Rayner’s appointment to Levelling Up, Housing and Communities seems to play to her strengths and interests. As expected, previous Cabinet experience has been pulled in wherever possible, to shore up a top table of many faces new to government; Hilary Benn has been brought back into the fold from committee-chairing, and a pleasant surprise has been the immediate deployment of “New Labour old lags” Douglas Alexander and Jacqui Smith as Ministers of State, alongside Ed Miliband, Pat McFadden and Yvette Cooper as full Cabinet members.

The less-good news: after a whole weekend of dithering, Anneliese Dodds has been given the Women and Equalities portfolio, despite having managed to anger numerous pro-women campaigners, including J K Rowling, with her clearly Stonewall-influenced views on gender recognition and conversion therapy, and will now be attending Cabinet, although not as a Secretary of State. One wonders whether no-one else wanted it, as a poison chalice; either way – in light of the new Prime Minister’s recently being forced into uncomfortable declarations regarding women’s toilets, contradicting Bridget Phillipson’s own the previous week – it is a tone-deaf appointment.

Meanwhile, women’s affairs being subsumed into Phillipson’s Education portfolio, breaking a manifesto promise that it would have its own department, presents less than ideal optics to women’s organisations on their importance to the new government. Monday’s Twitter has been aflame with the burns of disappointed women on Starmer and Dodds, and not without good reason.

After an undistinguished career in opposition, Emily Thornberry returns to the back benches and her role as Attorney General is taken by newly-ennobled Richard Hermer KC. While Hermer’s perhaps ill-advised involvement with some fringe pro-Palestine figures, such as Asa Winstanley, has been cause for concern in the Jewish community, his lawyerly position on Israel matters seems to be considerably more nuanced than  critics such as Guido are saying. We shall see.

And so we turn to David Lammy as incoming Foreign Secretary. An important question is this: as Britain’s chief diplomat, should we not be looking for someone more, well, diplomatic? Lammy’s career to date, and the judgement shown throughout it, has been a little chequered, to say the least.

On the plus side for the role, he has shown himself adept at networking abroad; indeed, Starmer’s unexpected “brush-by” with Joe Biden at D-Day is rumoured to be largely down to Lammy’s contacts from Obama days. Is his international politics sensible? With the odd exception, yes. He is clearly intelligent: he was one of the Commons’ youngest-ever MPs and is a graduate of super-elite Harvard Law School. But intelligence and good judgement are not the same thing.

On the minus side, however, he has shown something of a tendency to believe his own publicity and can be prone to pomposity, tone-deafness and shooting his mouth off[1], as exemplified by his 2021 car-crash interview on Radio 5 Live, where he managed to alienate a swathe of left-wing female support, talking over his female interviewer and referring to gender-critical women as rights-hoarding “dinosaurs”; groups, moreover, whose viewpoint has since been largely vindicated in the wake of the Cass report and who now – not to put too fine a point on it – actively loathe him. One of the groups angered is the entirely mainstream Mumsnet, the influential online network for parents; with whom, as a politician, you mess at your peril.

Despite having spent twenty-four years in the Commons, he is relatively inexperienced in high office – while that need not disqualify a politician, look at Starmer, or Blair and Brown – and there have certainly been a series of questionable judgements which speak to this. He has both been fined by the UK’s information regulator and reprimanded by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, and was not only one of the celebrated “morons” who “lent” his nomination to Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership, but was actually repeating what he had already done for Diane Abbott, five years earlier.

We can sincerely hope that Lammy’s appointment as Foreign Secretary will mark a more measured, mature approach than in previous incarnations; but the jury is certainly out as to whether this will come to pass in a high-pressure, globe-trotting role as the government’s Number Three.

Overall, this is a creditable first shot at Cabinet from Starmer, shaping an administration duty bound to deliver positive change in the wake of a period of sustained governmental self-harm. That said, the new Foreign Secretary might be well advised to see his appointment to high office as probationary, and act accordingly.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

[1] We might add that running an LBC talk show for the last two years gives ample opportunity for “hostage to fortune” clips to now surface on social media; use your presence on national media sparingly, is good advice for any aspiring minister.


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