To disgruntled Labour MPs, they’re known as the Gang of Five, or the Camden Set: Keir Starmer’s close-knit team of handpicked aides, some of whom are based in his local north London patch.
When he took over as Labour leader, with the country in lockdown, Starmer entrusted many of the key jobs in his office to longtime, trusted aides.
Director of communications Ben Nunn, who lives in Starmer’s constituency, had been at his side through the tribulations of Labour’s Brexit civil war; while political director Jenny Chapman backed him for the leadership even before he had decided to run.
His deputy chief of staff Chris Ward also worked with Starmer through the lean Jeremy Corbyn years, as long ago as the 2017 general election when the then shadow Brexit secretary was travelling the country buoying the spirits of anxious Labour MPs in vulnerable seats and styling himself “captain marginal”.
Chief of staff Morgan McSweeney and policy director Claire Ainsley were more recent additions to the Starmer operation, joining him as he took on the leadership.
But the five quickly became seen by MPs as a powerful clique, with more influence over many key strategic decisions even than most shadow cabinet members.
Some MPs even complained they had less idea of what was going on in the leader of the opposition’s office – known at Westminster by the abbreviation Loto – than during the Jeremy Corbyn years, when elements of the parliamentary party were frequently pitted against the leadership.
But it appears all that is about to change. Three of the “Gang” – political director Jenny Chapman, chief of staff Morgan McSweeney, and director of communications Ben Nunn – are being shifted aside in a major shake-up of Starmer’s office.
Chapman will take on a frontbench role, McSweeney will shift to focus on campaigns – and Nunn is leaving altogether.
Labour insiders say the aim is to professionalise Starmer’s operation, and to put the party on a political war footing, with the next general election likely to be at most two years away, potentially even sooner.
There has been no suggestion as yet that Ward or Ainsley could be for the chop; but party sources are clear that more changes are in the offing, with political big hitters expected to be brought into key posts.
Labour MPs welcome the idea of a sharper, election-ready operation – but the question they were asking themselves on Tuesday, as the news about Chapman’s long-rumoured move emerged, was what, if anything, the shift means for Labour policy.
Starmer has struggled to make political headway in the extraordinary pandemic period, with headlines dominated by the severe restrictions on daily life – and more recently by the vaccine rollout.
His shadow cabinet supporters point out the party has actually published a slew of policy ideas – including its own education catchup plan, and big-spending proposals on subsidising electric cars, for example – but they have not been able to cut through the Covid noise.
Yet backbench critics say they still do not know what Starmer’s Labour stands for – and are agitating for the announcement of a few symbolic, headline-grabbing policies, to make that clearer both to voters and longtime supporters.
It will be unclear until the dust settles whether the aloofness and lack of big ideas Starmer’s internal critics have complained about lie with his ultra-loyal gang of aides – or, as Tory MPs realised when they forced Theresa May to sack her key advisers, with the leader.