In hard hats and hi-vis jackets, the Labour leader and his deputy stood a metre apart on the campaign trail, their body language indicating a gap between them that had little to do with social distancing. In private, tensions at the top of the party were reaching boiling point.
The fraught relationship between Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner, the two most senior figures in the party, burst into the open on Saturday night when it was briefed out that she was being sacked as party chair and national campaign co-ordinator.
Relations are understood to have been strained for the best part of a year – Rayner supported Starmer’s rival, Rebecca Long-Bailey, in the 2020 leadership contest – but deteriorated further during Labour’s torrid campaign for the local elections.
Rayner’s allies complained she had been frozen out of key decisions by Starmer’s aides despite her role as campaign co-ordinator, and that some in his camp had spoken about her in less-than-flattering terms.
The Guardian was told that on one occasion Jim McMahon, the Oldham MP who ran the Hartlepool byelection campaign, told a meeting with the leader’s office that Rayner had been “dressed inappropriately” on a visit to the town on 21 March.
McMahon’s allies strongly denied he had been disparaging about Rayner, whose constituency borders his own in Greater Manchester, and said he was simply expressing displeasure about pictures that had been selected for a leaflet.
The photographs showed Rayner wearing leopard-print trousers, heavy-duty stomper boots and a hoodie during a visit to Hartlepool on a Sunday, when she had travelled there from her home in Tameside.
Rayner’s team “hit the roof” when they heard about the remark, sources said, but chose not to tell the deputy leader for fear of worsening relations in the middle of a difficult byelection campaign.
An aide to McMahon said: “Angela is a significant asset to the party and someone Jim supports and respects. Any suggestion otherwise is wrong. He takes a dim view of people trying to create division in the aftermath of what has been a difficult election.”
The episode cuts to the heart of why some believe Rayner was the first to be demoted by Starmer after Labour’s election performance, triggering a backlash. The pair are not only from different wings of the party, but from very different backgrounds.
Rayner, the MP for Ashton-under-Lyne, has spoken powerfully about leaving school at 16 when she was pregnant with her first child and later qualifying as a care worker after college. She climbed the ranks at Unison in the north-west of England after being a union rep for care workers in Stockport.
She became an MP in 2015 and was promoted to shadow education secretary under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership a year later, a post she held until Starmer became leader in April 2020.
There is a feeling among Rayner’s allies that she is seen by some at the top of the party as a “working-class oik and a bit thick” who doesn’t fit their “patronising Camden style”. Another Labour source, who has no loyalties to Rayner, said: “It’s a clear mistake to fire someone who speaks like the people we need to talk to. It’s a huge mistake from a bunch of snobs who don’t like how she speaks.”
Rayner has long complained to friends that she feels Starmer’s senior team are too cautious and controlling, citing as an example an appearance on Good Morning Britain with Piers Morgan last August when she called for Gavin Williamson’s resignation as education secretary after lambasting his handling of the exams fiasco.
She was subsequently reminded that it was not Labour policy to call for Williamson to go, but she felt it would have looked shifty not to do so after criticising him vehemently.
Rayner’s critics, however, claim she is too focused on building up her personal brand with an eye on a future leadership bid, instead of putting her shoulder to the wheel. She chose not to run for the leadership last year, leaving the way clear for her close friend and flatmate Long-Bailey. But Rayner is widely seen as a future challenger.
Despite being a longstanding member of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, she is regarded with suspicion by some on Labour’s left, who see her as closer to the right-wing of the party on some issues.
But MPs from across the party rallied behind her after news leaked on Saturday evening that Starmer had decided to strip her of the roles of party chair and elections coordinator. Rayner’s team say the first she heard of the news was when they were contacted by Sunday newspaper journalists to comment on the fact that she was being demoted.
The former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott called the decision to sideline Rayner baffling, while the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said she had been scapegoated after Starmer said he would take responsibility for the election results himself.
One aide to a shadow cabinet member said the handling of the issue had unleashed “the potential for a coalition of chaos” between the Corbynite left and soft-left MPs unhappy at the cack-handed political management of the past 48 hours.
Labour sources said Starmer had gone on to offer Rayner an alternative post – some suggested it related to social care – but that she had declined to consider it, believing it was both a demotion and a bid to blame her for the local election results. When and if the two leaders do find a way forward, however, the public nature of their row cannot be undone.