Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party will be "on the side of British businesses", Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, has pledged, as she unveiled plans to hand more public contracts to UK firms and suggested the party could cut business rates. 

In her first newspaper interview since being appointed in May, Ms Reeves sets out how businesses will form a centrepiece of Labour’s economic approach, because companies are "where wealth is created" and "where the jobs are created".

The intervention, which signals a major shift away from her hard-left predecessor John McDonnell, will be seen as an attempt to confront accusations that Sir Keir and Ms Reeves lack a clear "narrative" showing the approach they would take if Labour were to win the next election.

In an exclusive interview with The Telegraph, Ms Reeves:

  • Urges detractors of Sir Keir to give the Labour leader "a chance" as she insists that "the more the country find out about Keir the more that they will warm to him"; 
  • Says that her "overriding concern" is to convince voters that Labour can be "trusted with the public finances";
  • Describes as "bonkers" the fact that Britain’s Trident submarines were built with French steel and pledges to ensure "we can buy, make and sell more in this country"; 
  • Sets out proposals to insert clauses into government contracts that would "help give more public contracts to British businesses", and to require public bodies to report how much they are buying from UK firms; 
  • Pledges government support for businesses seeking to set up factories in the UK in order to "reshore" or "near-shore" production "so that their supply chains are less complicated and shorter" 
  • Insists that the Government must "find a way through" its current system of bubbling in schools, so "we don’t have to keep sending home lots of healthy kids".

Mr McDonnell used his first interview as shadow chancellor, in September 2015, to confirm his commitment to renationalisation and to insist that "you can’t understand the capitalist system without reading [Karl Marx’s] Das Kapital."

Six years, and two further "crushing election defeats" later, Ms Reeves sets out her stall at Chocolate Films, a video production company at Battersea Studios in south London. 

While the only mention of "business" in Mr McDonnell’s published interview was in the context of nationalisation or his support for replacing the Department for Business, Ms Reeves, the MP for Leeds West and a former economist at the Bank of England, refers to "business" or "businesses" more than 50 times in an hour-long interview.

Priorities: Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, mentioned business or businesses more than 50 times in an hour-long interview with The Telegraph.

Credit: Geoff Pugh

Fighting for the high street 

"I think that business is incredibly important. It’s where wealth is created, it’s where the jobs are created, it’s where most of my constituents work. I want to be, and my approach since starting this job … is to be on the side of British business and British jobs. And I think that people expect that of the chancellor, and they should expect it if I’m chancellor."

A Labour government, Ms Reeves says, would make the hundreds of billions of pounds of public-sector procurement "more strategic", using taxpayer-funded contracts "to do much more to help businesses and skills and workers and apprenticeships in this country".

She says: "There are just so many examples when that’s just not happening. Our Trident submarines are being built with French steel. Bonkers. Passports: jobs could have gone to Gateshead, instead, they go to France.

"We’ve known about HS2 for well over a decade now and yet still this Government has failed to work with British businesses and colleges and universities to ensure that those contracts go to British companies … Other countries know this, they know that procurement is strategically really important, which is why in France … they wouldn’t be using British steel to make submarines and frigates. And in the US not a single stage of military uniforms is made outside the United States of America."

Ms Reeves unveils plans to require public bodies to use clauses in contracts "that you can use to set out environmental and worker standards, so we can level the playing field and help give more public contracts to British businesses".

She believes that such clauses could be used, for example, to favour UK steel manufacturers over Chinese firms. She also believes that public-sector tenders could place a greater emphasis on a need for the firm to invest in UK skills, putting many British companies at an advantage when it comes to bidding for contracts.

Meanwhile, business rates are "very high", with many smaller high street firms paying too much.

Could a Labour government cut business rates? "Yes … One of the biggest signs of decay in our country is what’s happening on our high streets, and people don’t like it. 

"I don’t like it when I walk down the street in my constituency in Leeds and see shops boarded up or what was once a high street shop now a charity shop or a payday loan company. We need to do more to support businesses having a presence in our high streets."

The Brexit question 

Ms Reeves, 42, was quickly promoted to Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet the year after her election in 2010. When Jeremy Corbyn and Mr McDonnell took over in 2015 she began a five-year spell on the backbenches, which included leading several prominent inquiries as chairman of the Commons business committee.

In 2018 she called for Mr Corbyn to commit Labour to campaigning for Remain in the event of a second referendum on Brexit, but now, she insists, that debate has been put to bed after the 2019 election showed that voters were "fed up with politicians in general".

"We want to make this deal work, not rip it up," Ms Reeves says.  She does, however, believe that there are "lots of gaps" in the trade agreement negotiated by Boris Johnson. Her proposed fixes include signing a veterinary agreement – a proposal likely to be seen as an attempt to fight past battles.

Ms Reeves took over from Anneliese Dodds, Sir Keir’s first shadow chancellor, in the wake of Labour’s dismal local election results in May. This intervention comes after the party defied expectations to hold on to Batley and Spen, which was previously represented by Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered in the West Yorkshire constituency, who was a close friend of Ms Reeves.

Keir Starmer with Kim Leadbeater: Ms Reeves believes the new MP will 'shake up the parliamentary Labour Party and shake up Parliament in every good way possible'

Credit: Oli Scarff/ AFP via Getty Images

Ms Reeves is delighted for Kim Leadbeater, the successful Labour candidate and Cox’s sister, whom she encouraged to stand in the seat and will "shake up the parliamentary Labour Party and shake up Parliament in every good possible way". 

But, she says, the party must not be rushed into setting out an effective manifesto too soon.

"We’ve now had inflicted upon us four crushing election defeats," she says. "To come out of the most recent defeat, and say, ‘that didn’t go how we hoped, but we’ve got a new manifesto ready for next time, I don’t think is the right way to go about policies."

At the same time, amid grumblings about Sir Keir’s leadership, she insists: "I don’t think people have had a chance yet to see the real Keir Starmer … Our party conference this year is going to be really important for us, I really hope that it will happen in person with a full hall in Brighton so that people can hear from Keir about what he believes in, how he wants to transform our country, and what his priorities would be as prime minister."

Bursting the bubbles 

The moment in Ms Reeves’ first newspaper interview as shadow chancellor which causes visible panic is not, it turns out, facing questions about the finer detail of economic policy or Brexit.

"I thought you were going to ask me about the football," she says, breathing a sigh of relief when she realises that a question relating to a "topic of the moment" is actually about the system of "bubbles" in schools.

The shadow chancellor does not, she confesses,"know anything about football, apart from there’s somebody from Leeds, Kalvin Phillips, who is from Wortley in my constituency, so we’re all very proud of him." 

While her six-year-old son was glued to England’s triumph over Germany last week, she watched only about half of the match.

Ms Reeves speaks from personal experience about the impact of whole school classes and year groups having to self-isolate due to Covid-19 rules. She is married to Nick Joicey, a senior civil servant, and both their son and eight-year-old daughter have been instructed to stay at home.

"We’ve had that text message. One of them was at 10 o’clock on a Sunday evening, saying ‘a kid in your daughter’s class has got coronavirus’.

"It is really hard," she says. "I can do my job, pretty much, from home, and my husband can do his job from home as well … but loads of people don’t have that luxury … not to mention the impact it has on our kids’ education.

"I want the Government to find a way through this … We need to find ways to live with this virus without the huge impact it’s having on people’s everyday lives."