Starmer’s next challenge? Bending Whitehall to his will

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Overnight, the political map has changed colour. Britain’s new prime minister has walked through the black door of 10 Downing Street, to the traditional applause from staff. Sir Keir Starmer comes to power with a huge parliamentary majority, after the country voted conclusively to end the Tory soap opera. He now needs to apply every ounce of the ruthlessness and professionalism he has shown in reshaping Labour, to the task of governing. 

There is no adequate preparation for the shock of entering Number 10. Unlike many other countries, Britain gives its new leaders no transition period. Starmer himself, like Sir Tony Blair and Lord David Cameron before him, has never been a government minister. And his Cabinet will be relatively inexperienced. But the very fact that Starmer is the fourth prime minister in two years shows how desperately the country needs stability. Britain is suddenly looking a more reliable political prospect than either the US or France.

The first few days at the heart of power will be exhilarating. Starmer will sign letters to nuclear submarine commanders, take congratulatory calls from foreign leaders and appoint his Cabinet. That’s the easy bit. In the coming weeks we will find out how nimble he is in reacting to the unexpected events that assail every leader, and he will discover how weak some of his levers turn out to be.

Once, when working in the labyrinthine building that is Number 10, I opened one of the many doors to find myself in a cupboard. It felt like a metaphor for government. Beyond the black door lies the vast machinery of Whitehall theoretically at Starmer’s disposal. But bending it to the government’s will is something that past administrations have struggled with. Individual ministers go rogue and seek a headline; a lobby group captures a regulator; executive agencies and departments staffed by people who will be in their jobs long after your lot is gone show a maddening lack of urgency. 

In his memoirs, Blair lamented how little he had managed to reform public services in his first term, despite a big parliamentary majority. On re-election in 2001 he set up units in Downing Street to try and drive his priorities. Cameron and George Osborne, determined not to make the same mistakes, had a team in opposition writing secret business plans for each department of state. Even then, not every department played ball. The coalition’s signal achievements on schools, adoption and welfare were wrought mainly by Cameron allowing the reforming ministers Michael Gove and Sir Iain Duncan Smith to stay in post.

Starmer is alive to all of this. Appointing the veteran civil servant Sue Gray as his chief of staff was an early indication of how seriously he takes the need to grip the machinery and streamline cumbersome Whitehall processes. His creation of cross-cutting departmental boards focused around his five “missions” — on skills, growth, green energy, the NHS and crime — reflects the need for siloed departments to work together. But I fear these boards will be little more than a new version of the meetings, words and papers which masquerade as progress. Starmer is right to stamp his personal authority on the missions, and to seek to bring in experts. But he will need to be ruthless about turning his broad manifesto promises into specific targets.

The British state has a gift for creating complexity. Our tax code is 21,000 pages long; our planning system is gummed up; judicial review has become an art form. Whitehall gets subsumed in talking to itself and to the vast array of independent agencies it doesn’t fully control. It often comes as a surprise to people entering government how much power is held by arms-length bodies. The College of Policing, Ofwat, the Environment Agency, and the Care Quality Commission would be my priorities for drastic reform. Labour will add to the pile with a National Wealth Fund, Great British Energy, and possibly a new water authority. But it should also think about what could be abolished: a good test being the numerous entities whose disappearance would be noticed by no one except their own staff.  

As a former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, Starmer brings to office a creditable interest in detail and management. One danger lies in his inclination to run too many things himself. He intends to chair the mission boards, and has expressed admiration for Theresa May’s taking personal charge of task forces as home secretary. But May’s inability to delegate made her spectacularly ineffective as prime minister.

Right now, his powers of patronage are at their height. The excitement of seizing office after 14 years in the wilderness should be enough to placate his backbenchers for a few years — even though the sheer number of MPs behind him means that many ambitious souls will miss out.

Starmer’s modesty, which shone through even his victory speech, is the country’s best hope for restoring faith in politics. The general election showed the public has lost trust in the Conservatives but are not very enthusiastic about Labour — which has won a barely greater share of the vote than Jeremy Corbyn did in 2019. Starmer will have no problem getting his legislation through the Commons, but he will face opposition from both left and right. Nigel Farage, the new MP for Clacton, will use his platform to say that the political system is broken. This makes it all the more important that Starmer stands firm against the extremes, and develops a workable policy on immigration. 

What voters would really like is not to have to think about politics again for five years. If Starmer can deliver that, he will truly have been worth it.

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