Sue Gray’s battle for control of Labour: GLEN OWEN and DAN HODGES reveal how Starmer’s ‘overbearing’ right-hand woman is plotting against Blairites in face-off over the levers of power

With the polls pointing to a Tory wipeout at the election, the mood among Sir Keir Starmer‘s inner circle should be buoyant and focused. But this is the Labour party, where feuding and backstabbing are second nature – and the prospect of imminent power is only making it worse.

In 1997, as Labour headed for a massive 179 majority, Tony Blair‘s team became embroiled in what he described as ‘a Greek Tragedy’ – a toxic cocktail of sniping, briefing and plotting between Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell as they jostled for pre- eminence in the court of King Tony.

As Blair prepared to enter Downing Street, he despaired over the ‘titanic feud’ between Mandelson and Brown in particular: the then Labour leader would repeatedly ask: ‘Why, oh why, can’t my two best people get on with each other?’

Now it is Back to the Future as Blair, Mandelson and Campbell gravitate towards Sir Keir –and the rats step up the fighting in the sack.

Sue Gray, Sir Keir’s all-powerful new Chief of Staff, is at the centre of the discord. She was spotted last Wednesday lurking in the shadows outside the office where Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle was locked in private talks with Sir Keir, moments before the Speaker made his calamitous decision to let Starmer off the hook over a divisive vote on Gaza.

Multiple sources claim Ms Gray, a former civil servant who controversially signed up to the Starmer project after presiding over the Partygate inquiry into Boris Johnson‘s premiership, is locked in a power struggle with long-serving Starmer aides over sharing the spoils of a Labour victory. These include the likes of Matthew Doyle, the senior spin doctor who previously worked for Tony Blair and specialises in the tradecraft of stonewalling the media which so characterised the Blair era.

One source said: ‘Those who have been on the long march [back to power after 14 years in opposition] are worried that they are going to be ousted just as they are about to place their hands on the levers of power. There’s a big briefing war going on inside Keir’s office. Morale is low. Doyle in particular is angered by constant rumours he will be replaced if and when Starmer enters No 10.’

Labour’s internal tensions have been thrown into sharp relief by Sir Keir’s screeching U-turn over his £28billion-a-year green investment pledge, and The Mail on Sunday’s explosive revelations about the anti-Israel views of their candidate in the Rochdale by-election which led to him being dropped.

Labour insiders say such own goals expose the increasing fragility of the Starmer operation. ‘We fold under pressure,’ said one. ‘It does not bode well for government.’

Shadow Ministers and Labour staffers are becoming increasingly frustrated by what they see as Ms Gray’s ‘overbearing manner’ and ‘attention-seeking’ – epitomised, they say, by her heavy-handed investigations of leaks to the media and her decision to help former Times journalist Tom Baldwin in his new biography of Sir Keir.

A Shadow Minister said: ‘People are genuinely aghast that she spoke on the record to Baldwin. The Chief of Staff has to manage the Civil Service, diplomats and spooks. It’s not a campaigning or media role.’ Mr Baldwin, who was close to Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell when he worked on The Times and became Ed Miliband’s special adviser when he was Labour leader, is reputed to wield a powerful influence behind the scenes over policy and speech-making.

Mr Baldwin – whose heiress wife Rebecca Nicolson was brought up at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, and is known as ‘Just 16’ after the reply she is said to have given when asked as an Oxford student how many millions she inherited – is keen to deny the suggestion. ‘Untrue. I have written a book. Full stop,’ he says.

But as Starmer edges ever closer to Downing Street, the rest of the Blair era gang are rematerialising.

Sir Tony is playing an active role in drawing up Labour’s agenda – especially its health policies – along with Lord Mandelson and Mr Campbell. Former Blair speechwriter Peter Hyman is co-writing the party’s election manifesto while other senior advisers have been discreetly seconded from the Tony Blair Institute.

Tony Blair and Sir Keir Starmer discuss politics during the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change's Future of Britain Conference in London in July 2023

Tony Blair and Sir Keir Starmer discuss politics during the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change’s Future of Britain Conference in London in July 2023

Another potential returnee is David Miliband. Much is being made in Labour circles of the fact Mr Miliband, now head of the International Rescue Committee, was at the Munich security conference this month – an event also attended by Sir Keir. Sources close to the Labour leader insist it was a coincidence and say the two did not meet.

Coincidence or not, it has revived rumours that the ex-Foreign Secretary, who quit Westminster in 2013 after losing the Labour leadership race to younger brother Ed, is preparing a dramatic return to the Commons to take up a key role in government. There has even been speculation he could supplant Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy.

Another New Labour veteran, Douglas Alexander, who served in both Blair and Brown’s Cabinets and lost his seat in 2015, has already been selected as Labour candidate in East Lothian – one of the party’s top targets in Scotland.

According to one Shadow Minister, the internal friction will not stop Labour from getting into Number 10 – it will just be a major problem if Sir Keir gets there.

The frontbencher said: ‘The tensions are bubbling up. It’s probably not going to cost us the election but it’s all going to become an issue once we’re in power.’ To add to the tension, Morgan McSweeney, Starmer’s campaign chief and his longest serving aide, has reportedly told friends he wishes to leave the team after polling day. The result, say insiders, is a looming power void – especially as critics say Sir Keir is loath to confront his MPs face-to-face. ‘There’s a leadership vacuum,’ sighed another Shadow Minister. ‘Keir’s good at telling MPs what they want to hear but still not good at saying what they need to hear.’

Former top civil servant Sue Gray on her first day in her new role as Sir Keir Starmer's chief of staff

Former top civil servant Sue Gray on her first day in her new role as Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff

Mr Baldwin’s book has also rekindled debate about Ed Miliband’s influence – concerns only partly eased by abandoning the Shadow Climate Change Secretary’s £28billion green investment plan.

The way Mr Miliband, as party leader, appeared to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the 2015 election still worries some Labour MPs. ‘Some still think Ed has too much control,’ said one frontbencher. ‘He’s one of Starmer’s closest friends and getting his old spin doctor to write Starmer’s bio-graphy is a worrying sign.’

And while the Net Zero plan may be dead and buried, even its final demise fuelled tensions among staffers. They are said to have been ‘in tears’ over an allegedly ‘heavy-handed’ inquiry by Ms Gray into how the final announcement was leaked to the Press. Some officials have filed a formal complaint.

Ms Gray, who last week finally denied longstanding rumours that she had once worked in Northern Ireland as an intelligence agent, is said to have inspected the phones of staff and spoken to several of them during interviews without union representation being there.

Even some senior members of Sir Keir’s team were reportedly told to hand over their phones. She has since reportedly called some of the staffers to apologise.

All of which prompts a wry smile from one insider who served in Downing Street during the last Labour Government.

‘I know Sue Gray was brought in to ready Starmer’s team for the rigours of power, but does she have to give them nervous breakdowns already?’

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