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Keir Starmer’s fresh start presents an opportunity for better government

The new prime minister's early steps may be his easiest, but they are still encouraging.

Starmer press conference
Keir Starmer holds his first press conference as prime minister.

Labour’s remarkable majority does not just present us with a whole new cast of political leaders, Hannah White says, it presents the country with an opportunity to do government better

Over the past decade, government has been buffeted by a series of external shocks that have shifted the demands placed on politicians and the public service. Not only have a pandemic and an energy crisis reset public expectations about the role of the state, rolling crises have changed expectations within government about how to go about forming and implementing policy, making legislation, running the institutions of government and managing relationships between different tiers of the administrative state. On top of this, numerous difficult decisions on struggling public services and creaking infrastructure have been dodged or afforded only interim solutions.  

Labour’s victory presents an opportunity for reset. The signs – from the pre-election period and the few hours since – that the new government will seize this opportunity are encouraging. The question is whether good intentions formed in opposition can survive the transition into office and the first collision with unexpected events.

A well-prepared cabinet

The incoming Labour cabinet is among the best prepared for their new ministerial roles of any in recent decades. Three incoming secretaries of state have previous experience leading government departments (Cooper, Miliband and Benn) while a further five (McFadden, Healey, Smith, Lammy and Campbell) are former ministers – making the new cabinet more experienced than Tony Blair’s in 1997. Keir Starmer and Sue Gray arrive as prime minister and chief of staff having already experienced the government machine as senior officials. 

And building on this previous experience of government, the shadow cabinet engaged actively in government preparation activities including with the Institute for Government’s programme of ‘preparation for government’ – on offer to every official opposition party ahead of an election, but taken up with varying degrees of enthusiasm by previous prospective governments. The Institute is hoping that Labour’s ministerial team will continue to prioritise reflection and professional development over the course of their ministerial careers.

Investment in knowledge and expertise

Starmer’s decision to appoint his shadow cabinet almost entirely into the equivalent cabinet roles represents the most stable such transition of the last 30 years. This demonstrates a recognition that the expertise and networks that the cabinet built in opposition will serve them well in government. Future reshuffles should also be undertaken judiciously.  

Labour opposition to cabinet appointments July 6

While not an entirely novel strategy, early appointments of highly qualified externals to the Lords, to fill specialist ministerial roles (Patrick Vallance as minister for science, James Timpson as minister for prisons, parole and probation, Richard Hermer as attorney general) are another positive sign that this will be a government that values expertise and experience, as are rumours about plans to appoint experienced externals to 'mission boards' and as ‘tsars’ to spearhead priority areas (such as former Conservative minister Nick Boles on planning).

Setting early priorities

Achieving your goals in government means being clear about the outcomes you want. Starmer’s aspiration to pursue mission-based government represents an attempt to set clear, cross-cutting objectives. Although we have yet to see exactly what this means for the organisation of government, Starmer’s decision to put missions at the heart of his first speech outside Downing Street, and mention the establishment of ‘mission boards’ at his first press conference, were positive signals. Chairing these boards will be an important sign of prime ministerial prioritisation although inevitably Starmer will find there are trade offs in the time he has available to spend on this and his other responsibilities.  

A next step will be for Starmer to make a clear statement of his government’s immediate priorities, as recommended by our Commission on the Centre of Government. These priorities for government, alongside the Kings Speech due on 17 July, will be crucial in enabling the government to maintain a strategic focus, instead of being thrown off course by unforeseen events and competing short term interests.

Legislating better

In May, in a speech at the Institute for Government, Lucy Powell – now Leader of the House of Commons – set out plans to reset a future Labour government’s approach to legislating. This aspect of government is ripe for reform. Only a fifth of MPs now in parliament were elected before 2015, so have any meaningful experience of the practices of parliament before they were disrupted by the ructions of Brexit and the physical limitations of Covid, and more than half (52%) are entirely new in 2024. There is a risk that they see excessive use of secondary legislation, adoption of sweeping regulation making powers, cursory scrutiny of skeleton bills and limited expectations of backbench involvement in the examination of government bills as the norm.

Powell’s remarks before the election, and the manifesto’s promise of a new Modernisation Committee to update the practices of the Commons, seem to indicate that Labour recognises that the parliamentary ways of working which developed over the last decade are not conducive to good government. What is needed now is a review of legislative practice to establish the principles which will underpin the Starmer government’s approach to law-making. The first principle should be not to legislate except where absolutely necessary – the new cabinet will find the statute book already equips them with wide-ranging powers, and the time they save in passing bills through parliament may be much better spent effecting change in other ways.

Rethinking the Union

After years of poor relations between Westminster and the devolved nations, and occasional tensions between English mayors and the centre of government, Starmer’s government needs a reset to make devolution support Labour’s wider agenda for government. The early signs are promising. As we recommended, Starmer is intending to travel to all four nations in his first week as prime minister, and to hold a summit with all the mayors of combined authorities across England.  

At his first press conference Starmer emphasised the importance of ‘pushing power and resources outside Whitehall’ and changing working relationships with devolved leaders. This is essential to enable better coordination in pursuit of strategic priorities such as improved economic productivity, reduced regional disparities and a decarbonised energy system, as well as enabling those with local ‘skin in the game’ to make the most of regional growth opportunities.

Maintaining standards

It was enormously welcome to hear Keir Starmer, at his first press conference, say that his first comments to cabinet had been to set out the standards he expects of his ministers. This is not just about ethics, it is also pragmatic on his part – recent governments have been repeatedly distracted from delivering on their actual priorities by dealing with ethical scandals. Labour’s manifesto set out plans for a new ethics and integrity commission, another signal of the priority Starmer intends to give to this issue, but in truth it is the tone that Starmer and his ministers set from the top of government that will make the greatest difference. His refrain that the new government will ‘put country first, party second’ is promising, but it is the action he takes when the first scandals emerge – as they inevitably will – that will be crucial.

While the early signs are welcome, the early steps of a new government – basking in the glow of a huge general election win and with the benefit of preparing for the transition into government – are also the easiest. Keir Starmer’s government will face many sterner tests in the weeks and months ahead: a decision on how to avert a full-blown prisons emergency is imminent; further tough choices on how to allocate limited funds to support struggling public services are looming; and the scrapping of the Conservative government’s Rwanda scheme won’t end the small boats crossings.  

Too often, politicians forget that ‘how’ you go about government can be as consequential for real life outcomes as ‘what’ you seek to achieve. In his first 24 hours, Starmer has put a strong focus on how he expects his ministers to go about governing. As inevitable pressures mount over the course of his premiership, the challenge will be to sustain that focus on better government.  

Keir Starmer’s plan for government: How will it work?

Watch or listen back to our webinar looking at what Keir Starmer’s first week as prime minister tells us about how he intends to govern Britain. With IfG experts Emma Norris, Joe Owen, Hannah White, and the FT's Jen Williams.

Watch or listen back here
Starmer at No.10

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