Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer has angrily rounded on “cowards” who brief against his staff and warned shadow ministers that they should quit if they’re unhappy with his leadership team.

The Labour leader told the weekly meeting of Labour’s shadow cabinet that he was appalled by recent criticism of his aides, saying those responsible should “either stop now or have the guts to get out” of his frontbench team.

In a rare flash of anger, Starmer said that if anyone wanted to criticise his leadership they should direct that at him rather than act like “cowards who attack my staff”.

Most of his shadow ministers strongly welcomed Starmer’s words, although one insider said that there was “stony silence” from some on the Zoom call meeting.

Among those who then spoke up to strongly support his approach were shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds, shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens and shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds.

Shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon, shadow communities secretary Steve Reed and shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire stressed just how damaging such briefing was to the party particularly in an election period.

Unnamed shadow ministers have in recent weeks criticised Starmer’s aides, including his chief of staff Morgan McSweeney, policy chief Claire Ainsley and political director Jenny Chapman, blaming them for Labour’s caution or its reliance on focus groups of former “Red Wall” voters.

Starmer is also understood to be furious at recent briefings against frontbenchers Anneliese Dodds and Rachel Reeves.

“We’ve got a vital set of elections next month and this stuff just shouldn’t be happening. It’s deeply disloyal,” one of those on the call told HuffPost UK.

The May elections are Starmer’s first electoral test since he became leader a year ago, and he faces the added challenge of Labour defending its once safe seat of Hartlepool in a by-election.

The Labour leader has campaigned on crime and policing, council tax hikes and the planned 1% nurses pay rise in the run-up to the May 6 polling day.

Covid restrictions and the week-long pause to mark the passing of Prince Philip have derailed the party’s hopes to get reaching more voters directly.

While Starmer has pointed out the party’s poll ratings have suffered from a “vaccine bounce” for Boris Johnson and the Tories, some MPs believe he needs to do more to set out his plans for a future Labour government.

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