Angela Rayner’s road to the top of British politics has been an unlikely one.
The former care worker had a baby at the age of 16 and left school without any qualifications, told she would not amount to anything.
But if Labour wins the next general election, she is certain to be one of the key figures in the new government.
In a reshuffle of his top team, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer gave Ms Rayner the official title of shadow deputy prime minister, and a hefty domestic policy brief covering levelling-up, communities and housing.
She remains Labour’s deputy leader, with a party source saying “she will continue to be the strategic lead on Labour’s new deal for working people”.
Labour’s deputy leader is elected by the party, not appointed by its leader, which gives Ms Rayner a significant level of independence from Sir Keir.
The 43-year-old has a reputation for speaking her mind, and – as a working-class woman from the north of England, who did not go to university – a widely-recognised ability to reach parts of the electorate that might be less accessible to recent Labour leaders closely associated with London.
Relations between Sir Keir and Ms Rayner have sometimes been tense. After Labour lost control of eight English councils and the seat of Hartlepool in a parliamentary by-election in May 2021, the deputy leader was removed from her post as party chair.
But she pushed back and gained new roles as shadow first secretary of state, shadow Cabinet Office minister and a fresh post speaking for the party on the future of work.
Born Angela Bowen in Stockport, Greater Manchester, in 1980, she grew up on one of the area’s poorest council estates and was caring for her mother, who was bipolar and suffered from depression, from an early age.
Both Ms Rayner’s parents were unemployed. Speaking in 2017 to the BBC’s At Lunch With… podcast, she remembered having to grow up very quickly.
She said: “My mum was a really vulnerable person. I remember, at 10, my mum being suicidal and me sleeping like a dog on the end of her bed, just to try and stay next to her so she didn’t do any harm to herself.”
Her father, she added, shouted a lot, and she, her older brother and her younger sister were all scared of him.
She has also recalled going to her grandmother’s flat on Sundays, so the family could take it in turns to have a bath there. Hot water was too expensive for them to use at home.
After having her first son at 16, Ms Rayner studied part-time at college, learning British sign language and gaining a vocational qualification in social care.
She spent a number of years as a care worker in Stockport, mainly looking after elderly people in their own homes, while also rising quickly through the ranks of the union, Unison.
“I was mouthy,” she says. “And I would take no messing from management.”
Ms Rayner, who now has three sons, married Unison official Mark Rayner in 2010. The couple separated in 2020.
By that time, she was already an MP and shadow education secretary. She won her seat, Ashton-under-Lyne, for the first time in 2015, observing in her maiden Commons speech that she was its first female MP in its 183-year history.
Like Rishi Sunak a keen Star Wars fan, she fell foul of parliamentary rules early on when she used Commons-headed note paper to complain to a shop about missing out on a pair of R2-D2 heels.
But she rose quickly at Westminster, becoming an opposition whip and shadow pensions minister before joining Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet – holding the women and equalities, and education briefs.
In the education role, she made her mark championing funding for early years children and the idea of a national education service modelled on the NHS. She said she knew what it was like to be left behind.
She has described herself as a socialist, but also as part of Labour’s “soft left”. She voted for now-Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham in Labour’s 2015 leadership election and was critical of Mr Corbyn’s performance as leader after he resigned.
At Westminster, Ms Rayner shared a flat with another new young female northern Labour MP, Rebecca Long-Bailey, and sat alongside her in the shadow cabinet.
When Mr Corbyn stood down following Labour’s worst general election result since 1935, the friends decided not to fight each other for the leadership. Ms Long-Bailey was defeated by Sir Keir, while Ms Rayner won the deputy post comfortably.
She has described herself as “quite hardline” on law and order, having experienced anti-social behaviour when she was growing up.
She said Labour wanted people to “create wealth”, echoing famous remarks made by former cabinet minister Lord Mandelson.
Abuse and misogyny
She has said she “didn’t have a particularly strong view either way” on Brexit. She campaigned and voted to remain in the EU during the 2016 referendum, but later opposed Labour’s shift to a policy of holding a second referendum, arguing it would “undermine democracy”.
Ms Rayner earns an MP’s salary of £86,584, and has declared £16,050 in extra income, gifts and donations in the 2022-23 register of financial interests.
As a prominent woman, Ms Rayner has suffered a lot of online abuse. In 2019, she had panic alarms installed at her family home after receiving death threats.
She had initially stood by the remark, saying she would say sorry when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologised for his own past offensive comments. Sir Keir told the BBC: “Angela and I take a different approach, and that is not the language I would have used,” adding that it was up to her to decide whether to apologise.
In a social media post, Ms Rayner said she had reflected on “our political debate” and the “abuse that now seems to feature all too often”, and in future would be “more careful” about her language.
In April 2022, she was at the centre of further controversy – but this time won support from across the party divide, when the Mail on Sunday carried a claim that she had tried to distract Mr Johnson in the Commons by crossing and uncrossing her legs.
The newspaper said the claim had been made by a number of Tory MPs. But the story was widely condemned, including by many female Conservatives.
The prime minister said he deplored “the misogyny directed at her anonymously”. Ms Rayner dismissed the report as a “perverted smear” that showed women in politics faced misogyny every day.