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‘Restless’ Starmer says new cabinet must get on with change

'We have been planning for months to hit the ground running,' he said, adding: 'But look, it is not an overnight exercise changing the country'.
Last Updated : 07 July 2024, 09:54 IST

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By Asad Zulfiqar, Ailbhe Rea and Alex Wickham

Prime Minister Keir Starmer said voters gave his government a “mandate for change” in the UK election on Thursday and that his new Cabinet must “hit the ground running” with a focus on delivery.

Speaking in his first press conference since ousting Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives, Starmer set out what he sees as a clear shift in tone. He also immediately scrapped his predecessor’s flagship policy to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

“Self interest is yesterday’s politics... I want a politics and a country that works for you,” Starmer told reporters. “We have been planning for months to hit the ground running,” he said, adding: “But look, it is not an overnight exercise changing the country.”

Starmer’s Labour won a huge parliamentary majority comparable to Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, but with the backing of just 34% of voters — a remarkably efficient campaign but one that critics are already suggesting undermine claims of a mandate for change. On Saturday, the new premier made clear he doesn’t see it that way.

He said he would visit the four nations of the UK on Sunday for talks with the first ministers, and that his government had already begun the work on delivering change. As well as completing his cabinet lineup, Starmer has set out what he calls mission delivery boards to track progress on commitments.

The new premier said he would travel to Washington on Tuesday for the NATO summit, his first opportunity to meet world leaders since taking office. He repeated his commitment to spend 2.5% of GDP on defense as soon as the public finances allowed, though stopped short of targeting a specific date.

That’s a change from the position of Rishi Sunak’s outgoing government, which this year pledged to hit that percentage by 2030.

Starmer spoke by phone to leaders including US President Joe Biden, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The incoming Labour government “stood ready to conclude” a free trade deal that was being negotiated between Sunak’s and Modi’s officials without agreement, Starmer’s office said in a statement Saturday.

The newly-appointed cabinet set to work this weekend on implementing Labour’s plans for the first 100 days of its administration.

Starmer said he agreed with Health Secretary Wes Streeting that the National Health Service is “broken.” Streeting announced he would begin pay negotiations with the doctors’ trade union, the British Medical Association, to avert more strikes by junior doctors. Industrial action blighted Sunak’s time in office, with the former premier unable to resolve disputes over pay and conditions and blaming the action for his failure to reduce NHS waiting lists.

Among Starmer’s more eye-catching ministerial appointments so far are Patrick Vallance, who was the government’s chief scientific advisor during the coronavirus pandemic, and Timpson CEO James Timpson, who has advocated for the rehabilitation of prisoners and is minister for prisons, parole and probation.

In a past interview with Channel 4 News, Timpson said Britain was “addicted” to sending people to prison and suggested only a third of prisoners should be there. Starmer — a former director public prosecutions — defended Timpson when asked about those remarks, insisting he had “huge experience” and that the “massive problem” of recidivism would be a priority for his administration.

A crisis in Britain’s prisons looks set to be one of the Labour government’s early political fights, with money desperately needed for a justice system with jails close to overflowing. The right-wing media — as well as the Tories and Nigel Farage’s Reform UK party — take a hard line on prison sentences and will criticize any shift of emphasis toward rehabilitation and early release — though Sunak’s government was also releasing prisoners early due to overcrowding.

Still, the new administration will also face pressure from the left of the governing Labour Party, as well as Greens and independents who won more seats than expected at the election, on policies such as the cap limited child benefits to two children. Starmer maintained his position that he would not be able to afford to lift the cap.

He batted away claims that his government’s mandate wasn’t as strong as his parliamentary majority suggests, and reiterated that he would reach out to all areas of the UK. He repeated his campaign line that he is not a “tribal” politician and that any metro mayor or regional leader who wanted to deliver for their area could work with him “regardless of the color of their rosette.”

The premier told reporters he wanted to be called “Keir” or “prime minister” if necessary, and said he would move his family into the Downing Street residence soon. “I am restless for change, and I think and hope that what you’ve already seen demonstrates that,” he said.

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Published 07 July 2024, 09:54 IST

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