Labour now has a top team ready for government, says Yvette Cooper

It was one of the most eye-catching moves in Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet reshuffle, marking a comeback for a former cabinet minister who first cut her teeth in government under Tony Blair.

And Yvette Cooper has wasted little time putting herself at the forefront of her party’s pitch to win the next general election.

In an interview with the Guardian, the new shadow home secretary said Labour now had a top team that “could be in government tomorrow”, and could credibly challenge the Tories on law and order.

Asked about her new role, Cooper said: “The thing that feels important about it is, I’ve had now 11 years of working in detail on Home Office issues, as well as obviously, past experience in government as the courts minister, and cabinet experience as well. And Keir was obviously five years as the director of public prosecutions. So I think together, we bring very strong experience and a Labour alternative.”

Asked whether the reshuffle marked a shift to the political right, she said “it’s a focus on a shadow cabinet that could be in government tomorrow”, contrasting that with a government she called “shambolic, and not really capable of doing the job”.

Cooper was shadow home secretary during Ed Miliband’s leadership, before returning to the backbenches as chair of the home affairs select committee for the past five years.

Speaking for the first time since her appointment, Cooper attacked Boris Johnson for undermining the rule of law; demanded more action on “spiking”; and underscored Labour’s calls for predeparture testing to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

With the prime minister under pressure over a Downing Street Christmas party apparently held last December while strict limits on socialising were in place, Cooper said Johnson’s scant regard for rules meant the Tories’ claim to be the party of law an order was a “joke”.

“He still really thinks it’s one rule for him and another for everyone else,” she said. “They have undermined all of the institutions that hold up the criminal justice system, from policing, to prevention, to the courts, and they have stepped back and done nothing while it’s frankly become much easier to be a criminal. But also, they actually just show no respect for following the rules.”

She contrasted that with what she called Starmer’s “serious steadiness”. Cooper said Labour was the party of “safer communities” and would take a more active approach than the Tories in tackling crime at its roots, citing as an example the spiking of drinks.

“I just think it should be treated as a serious crime: it’s not being. And actually, it’s poisoning people,” she said. “How have we allowed a situation to arise, where young people go to clubs or to pubs and have to protect their drinks?

“An active Home Office would say: OK we’ve got evidence that there’s a problem that seems to be getting worse. Is it linked to something that’s happening online? Is it linked to changing crime patterns? Is there work that local authorities can do working with police forces?

“The Tories don’t do any of that, because they don’t think it’s their responsibility. We believe in active government, to do something about it.”

Cooper said she would back the government on some issues, such as countering terrorist threats, but in other areas Labour would be “calling on them to get a grip, but also setting out: actually here’s what grip would look like.”

On immigration, where the Tories have consistently sough to portray Labour as soft, Cooper says she believes the public are ready for a “calm, sensible conversation”. “What does a fair immigration system look like, that supports the economy, that allows people to fall in love across borders, to get married?” she said.

Labour is not backing the government’s nationality and borders bill, which returns to parliament next week and includes measures Johnson has claimed will allow the Border Force to turn back people trying to reach England in small boats.

Rather than criticise the bill as illiberal, Cooper said: “This legislation is just a sham, and they’re making a lot of promises, but actually all they’ve got is unworkable measures.”

The home secretary, Priti Patel, has been touring Europe this week in an effort to agree a response to the growing number of desperate people risking their lives at sea in the hope of claiming asylum in the UK.

Cooper echoes the approach of her predecessor Nick Thomas-Symonds by calling for the government to negotiate a post-Brexit successor to the Dublin agreement, which allows some asylum seekers to be returned to the first EU country in which they arrived, to help tackle the challenge of preventing so many people risking their lives by taking to the sea in flimsy vessels.

“That included family reunion, that included safe legal routes, and it included safe returns as well,” she said.

She points out that the government has returned just five asylum seekers in the past nine months, despite its tough rhetoric, compared with 289 last year when the UK was still bound by the Dublin agreement.

One of Cooper’s first interventions has been to join with the new shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, to call on the government to reintroduce predeparture testing for all passengers arriving in the UK to slow the spread of the Omicron Covid variant.

“Why on earth not do just something as basic as requiring people to get a test before they get on a plane?” she said in the exasperated tone she has made her trademark while grilling successive home secretaries.

“If you arrive at an airport, you can get on a busy, crowded plane, you can arrive in a really crowded arrivals hall, get on to a busy tube train, get on to a busy train, a busy bus, arrive home, see your housemates or your family. All of those things can happen and you’ve never had a test anywhere along the way.”

Cooper has frequently been linked with a potential leadership challenge and some Labour sources have suggested her arrival in the shadow cabinet marks a truce amid fears she or another centrist contender could challenge Starmer.

Asked if she saw herself as a potential future Labour leader, Cooper said: “I want to be home secretary.”

On whether Starmer has what it takes to be prime minister, she said: “Look, he’s prosecuted terrorists. He would be absolutely capable of taking the difficult decisions that a prime minister needs to take.”

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