Skip to main content
Mile End Institute

The Leader's Lynchpin: Starmer's need for a Chief of Staff

With the Labour Party seeking a new Chief of Staff, Max Stafford considers the challenge facing whoever manages the Leader of the Opposition's office and how they might contribute to Keir Starmer's transition to Downing Street. 

Black and White photo of Downing Street road sign.
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes.

Keir Starmer currently has a job advert out. He's seeking someone to fulfil a role that is, on the face of it, unenviable. This person must be able to run a busy political office, advise on electoral strategy, oversee the creation of a manifesto-ready policy programme, and the ability to undertake what Dominic Cummings called 'horizon scanning' - put simply, the ability to anticipate developments and prepare for them. Given this job description, it is easy to see why Gavin Barwell - who ran Downing Street for Theresa May between 2017 and 2019 - described the role as being 'the human equivalent of a Swiss Army knife'.

The job? Keir Starmer is looking for a Chief-of-Staff

It is quite common for leading politicians - or, indeed, senior people in business, charities, and the public sector - to seek someone to fill such a role. The role itself means different things in different contexts. In a previous MEI Blog, I have written about what this role means when undertaken within Downing Street. It involves human resources management, policy co-ordination, maintaining relationships with senior civil servants, overseeing the Prime Minister's schedule, and much else besides. Indeed, the current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has, of course, only just appointed his own Chief of Staff, Liam Booth-Smith

For Starmer, however, the challenge is a different one. Having let his previous Chief go earlier this year, he is now seeking the person who will likely be his Chief in Downing Street, if Labour win the next general election. To date, there have now been 15 Chiefs of Staff in Downing Street, including those who have been de facto (i.e. without the title) such as Cummings and Eddie Lister, who undertook aspects of the role during Johnson's premiership. These are as follows: 

Name Prime Minister Dates
Jonathan Powell Tony Blair 1997-2007
Tom Scholar* Gordon Brown 2007-08
Stephen Carter* Gordon Brown 2008
Jeremy Heywood* Gordon Brown 2008-10
Ed Llewellyn David Cameron  2010-16
Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill Theresa May 2016-17
Gavin Barwell Theresa May 2017-19
Dominic Cummings* Boris Johnson 2019-20
Eddie Lister** Boris Johnson 2020-21
Dan Rosenfield Boris Johnson 2021-22
Stephen Barclay Boris Johnson 2022
Simone Finn** Boris Johnson 2022
Mark Fallbrook Liz Truss 2022
Liam Booth-Smith Rishi Sunak 2022-present
  • De facto - e.g. Carter essentially undertook the role whilst Director of Strategy. ** Acting Chief of Staff

However, despite the existence of this large alumni, only two have filled the function that Starmer wants his new Chief to replicate. That is to be the Chief-of-Staff who transitions from the Leader of the Opposition's office (LOTO) to Downing Street. To date, only Jonathan Powell and Ed Llewellyn have done this. In that sense, the historical pattern for the specific task facing the incoming Chief is quite limited. 

So, it was with interest that I read the briefings last week that Starmer is seeking a former civil servant or career diplomat for the role. This would, of course, be a continuation of that historical pattern: Powell was a former diplomat who first encountered Tony Blair when the latter visited the British Embassy in Washington in 1993; Llewellyn, likewise, was another Foreign Office man who was a senior adviser to Chris Patten in Hong Kong. Interestingly, in the case of the latter, he has since returned to a diplomatic career and is currently the British Ambassador to Italy

Diplomats and civil servants do, of course, offer a putative prime minister significant advantages. First, they may have links to the governments of other major economies and allies. Likewise, they will know the internal machinery of the British government well, having spent years seeking to work it on behalf of others. This is likely to be appealing to Starmer, given that he has just this week announced plans for major reforms of UK governance. It certainly played a role in Powell's tenure under Blair, especially with regard to introducing innovations such as the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit which sought to drive the implementation of policies in key public services

Third, and related to this second point, they will likely have relationships with existing civil servants, enabling them, at least in theory, to speed up that aforementioned implementation. Fourth, a party that will likely have been out of government for fourteen years by the time of the next election would benefit greatly from having someone with deep inside knowledge overseeing the complex Downing Street operation. 

Of course, the Labour leader may prefer someone with whom he has an existing working relationship. To date, there has been no suggestion that this will mean the appointment of a sitting MP or serving Shadow Cabinet member - mirroring Boris Johnson's appointment of Stephen Barclay in February. There is always the potential for Starmer to appoint a member of his existing advisory team. If that is the case, then the potential talent pool is quite large. However, it would mean that he definitely had an existing working relationship with the person concerned. This would mean that they could likely 'hit the ground running' which would be advantageous as the clock ticks down towards the general election. 

Of course, both of these options exclude someone who is currently outside of the political bubble - for instance, a business leader or the head of a charity. In 2008, Gordon Brown brought Stephen Carter (a former businessman from the technology and communications industries) into government as his Chief-of-Staff. Though only a short appointment - nine months, in all - it did illustrate that political appointments are open to those with no, or limited, prior government experience. However, this is an unlikely route for Starmer to choose, given the aforementioned need for someone who knows how to manage a transition into government. 

Additionally, Starmer's new Chief may be aided by other recent changes to LOTO. These include substantial changes to the personnel contained within the policy team. Assuming that these new personnel also intended to transition into a future Labour government, then an incoming Chief can afford to devote a greater amount of attention to the overall management of Starmer's diary and the party's political strategy. I am not suggesting that the new Chief won't want to have an input into policy. However, it would surely be advantageous to allow them greater space to focus upon the transition towards government itself - especially if their prior experience in this becomes a major reason for their appointment. 

So, a policy-aware manager with skills in gatekeeping, political strategy, and speaking truth unto power, matched by substantial previous experience of governing. Should be simple to find, right? 

Dr Max Stafford is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Mile End Institute and a Fellow of Advance HE. He is currently writing a book examining mayors as political leaders, and another examining the changing role of the Downing Street Chief of Staff. 



Back to top