Angela Rayner: The Wounded Lioness

April 21 2024 / The Sunday Times

On Wednesday afternoon, at prime minister’s questions, Sir Keir Starmer finally delivered a robust defence of Angela Rayner. He denounced her tormentors for “smearing a working-class woman”, as if her social class offered protection against legitimate public scrutiny of an elected politician’s private conduct.

Rayner is facing investigations by Greater Manchester police over whether she broke electoral law by supplying incorrect information to the electoral register when she lived between two houses with her then husband in the 2010s.

She and Starmer have what is described as a pragmatic working relationship. They are not confidantes and do not trust each other, but are bound inextricably as the elected leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party.
Starmer came late to Labour politics but Rayner’s powerbase is the trade union movement through which she rose as a young care worker. And she knows how to do politics: to use relationships to her advantage, to build cross-class coalitions and alliances (she is close to trade union leaders and wealthy party donors), to leak and brief as and when it is in her interest.
In spring 2021, for instance, she outmanoeuvred Starmer and dispatched her aides to brief on her behalf after he tried to demote her during a botched shadow cabinet reshuffle from which Rayner emerged strengthened and garlanded with new job titles. The “more titles he feeds her, the hungrier I fear she is likely to become”, Boris Johnson quipped in the Commons, likening Rayner to a lioness. “She knows in any pride of lions, it is the male who tends to occupy the position of titular, of nominal authority, but the most dangerous beast, the prize hunter of the pack, is in fact the lioness.”
But Labour’s flame-haired lioness is unusually subdued. In normal times, she would have been stridently leading the attack against Mark Menzies, the latest Conservative MP to be mired in sleaze allegations. These are not normal times for Rayner. She is adept at telling stories about herself but now she has lost control of the narrative and feels persecuted and abused. Beyond the brash exterior is a vulnerable and anxious woman. She is an insomniac — she endures the long, sleepless hours by listening to audiobooks about serial killers — and trusts very few people beyond her tight inner circle; she has panic buttons installed in her house and was convinced during the Corbyn years that she was being spied upon.

The feeling among some of her friends is that Starmer would not be too bothered if she were toppled by the saga of her former living arrangements and tax affairs; Rayner has said that she would resign if found to have committed a criminal offence. But if she resigned, a deputy leadership contest would follow, and that’s something Starmer does not want so close to a general election.

Like Boris Johnson, whom in some ways she resembles, Rayner is a source of endless fascination and speculation. There is no one quite like her at Westminster. She is gossiped about, condescended, traduced but never ignored. Like Johnson, she has undoubted star quality. She is both self-glamorising and self-mythologising.

Rayner is a politician for all factions of the party. New Labour veterans herald her as a model of working-class aspiration; she publicly praised Tony Blair in 2019. The old right like her communitarianism and classic Labourism. The hard left — she was a prominent member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet but never a true believer — like her anti-Tory militancy and rabble-rousing; she once described Conservatives as “scum”. The soft left like her pragmatic deal-making and social-democratic approach to workers’ rights and the state. She is the leading advocate of Labour’s putative New Deal for Working People and, therefore, revered and protected by trade union power brokers.

It was notable that, when defending her in the Commons, Starmer referred performatively to Rayner’s social class. There are other conspicuously working-class members of the shadow cabinet whose childhoods were, in different ways, just as complex and difficult as Rayner’s, such as Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, and Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary. But they both rode an education escalator all the way to Oxbridge.
Rayner never stepped on the escalator. Her impoverished mother could not read or write and suffered from bipolar disorder. Rayner dropped out of school and was a mother herself aged 16 (and a grandmother at 37). She wears these early struggles like a badge of honour. They define who she is and the communities for whom she professes to speak. They are part of her working-class “authenticity” so cherished by Labour, which nowadays is largely a party of graduates, urban progressives, public sector workers and minority groups.

Angela Rayner is caricatured as brash, brassy and unlettered. But those who have worked closely with her say she’s highly intelligent (though not an intellectual) and deadly serious about reforming the country. She is used to being underestimated and to defying expectations: as a teenage single mother making her way in the northern trade union movement; as an inexperienced MP thrust into Corbyn’s depleted shadow cabinet after mass resignations; as the elected deputy leader whom Starmer wanted to demote.

As Labour’s “most dangerous beast”, Rayner is feeling hunted. She knows the Tories are out to get her and the minor revelations about her former living arrangements keep dribbling out. There are some in the parliamentary Labour Party who believe Rayner has acquired too much power and overreached but, though she is wounded, she retains the pragmatic support of the leadership. For now.