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How Angela Rayner operates as deputy prime minister is a core question for Labour

Keir Starmer needs to decide what kind of deputy prime minister he might need in government.

Keir Starmer (left) and Angela Rayner (right) at the launch of Labour's manifesto.
If Labour wins the general election, Angela Rayner’s job description will have major implications for the coherence and effectiveness of the government.

Angela Rayner is reportedly marking out her territory as prospective deputy prime minister. She needs to find a model that works effectively in government as well as politically, say Alex Thomas and Catherine Haddon

If Labour enters office next month with a large majority then its internal relationships and organisational structures will define how the government works. There has been plenty of commentary about the relationship between Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, but relatively little scrutiny of how Rayner might actually operate as deputy prime minister.

There is no official deputy prime minister (DPM) job in British government. It is an honorific (and at times frankly meaningless) title given to reward the prime minister’s allies or placate their rivals. The DPM can be a powerful political figure in their own right, or more of a vessel to extend the PM’s reach. Deputy prime ministers have tended to play a more substantial role in Labour governments because the deputy Labour leader is elected by party members and so has their own power base.

That means Rayner and Starmer have some freedom to define the role as they see fit – or to argue about how it should work if they disagree. But either way Rayner’s job description will have major implications for the coherence and effectiveness of the government.

There are three types of deputy prime minister

There are three basic models: the “Clegg”, the “Whitelaw” and the “Prescott”. Nick Clegg was a genuine shadow to the prime minister, inputting to most decisions and covering the whole breadth of government. He was based in the Cabinet Office and over time built up a team that mirrored the prime minister’s support in No.10. But that was peculiar to the circumstances of the coalition and is unlikely to be a model Rayner adopts.

Willie Whitelaw was Margaret Thatcher’s deputy prime minister and, after he moved from the Home Office to become Leader of the Lords, operated as her confidant, fixer and departmental broker. More recently Oliver Letwin, David Lidington, Damian Green and Oliver Dowden have played a similar role, though not all as deputy PM. This model sees the DPM chairing cabinet committees, solving problems and throwing themselves at crises on behalf of the prime minister. It requires a deputy who is totally loyal to the boss, has access to the PM, and who can credibly speak for and make decisions on the prime minister’s behalf, without their own portfolio to soak up their attention.

But Rayner, operating from her own department, seems most likely to adopt a version of the John Prescott model – or at least early Prescott, when as Tony Blair’s deputy he led a succession of large departments and pursued his policy priorities through the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and then the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for local government.

Operating from multiple bases will cause confusion

As things stand Rayner would be based in a (presumably renamed) Levelling Up (DLUHC) department. But reports suggest that she will also set up a base in the Cabinet Office to co-ordinate homelessness policy. This would already be part of her brief at DLUHC, but running it from the centre could give the subject more clout and there may be other policy areas she wants to co-ordinate across government. Her standing as DPM could mean that she is able to convene departmental ministers on wider ranging briefs, bringing coherence to what have been difficult cross-government areas.

There are risks to this. Rayner should be very wary of spreading herself too thinly – being secretary of state for planning, housing, and local government is already a wide remit, including likely top priorities for a Labour government, and with major decisions that are hard or legally impossible to delegate to junior ministers. She will have to choose where she wants to focus her energies – and it will be hard to include all of the major priorities within DLUHC as well as those encompassed by – for example – employment rights, which Starmer gave her in his tricky 2021 shadow cabinet reshuffle.  

Having a duplicate physical office in the centre of government would add organisational complexity. Rayner may feel that the benefits of proximity to power outweigh the disadvantages, and a policy heavy DPM role could benefit from the support of the centre. But all of this adds administrative overhead and officials will end up tripping over each other to some extent. Co-ordinating her diary and paperwork will prove difficult and could ultimately be detrimental to achieving her priorities.

Starmer will still need a loyal fixer in the Cabinet Office

Starmer will need someone to be his Willie Whitelaw, and if she is leading a department it seems unlikely to be Rayner. So he should appoint a ‘first secretary’ figure as a senior Cabinet Office or No.10 minister to chair cabinet committees, fix problems, hold departments to account, work closely with the Treasury and, crucially for Labour, orchestrate the machinery needed for mission-driven government. The shadow minister who most closely mirrors that role is currently Pat McFadden.

If Keir Starmer becomes prime minister then he will need both a  deputy with a clearly defined role, and an ultra-loyal fixer to help drive his own priorities. With clear remits and a coherent structure Starmer’s centre of government could hang together, but confusion at the centre can ripple out quickly – and dangerously – into the rest of government. If Starmer becomes prime minister he will need to make the right decisions about structure and personnel from day one. 

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Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks on stage at the launch of the party's 2024 general election manifesto in Manchester, England.

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