Corbyn makes painful gains in endless reshuffle
Despite internal strife, Labour’s leader is putting his stamp on the party
Britain’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaving his home in north London on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters/Hannah McKay
After weeks of background briefings and two days of negotiations, Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet reshuffle has produced two sackings, three resignations, two moves and, possibly, a gagging.
It has made Corbyn’s enemies on his own benches more red-faced than ever and allowed David Cameron to make a few jokes at his expense during prime minister’s questions yesterday. But it has left the Labour leader with a tighter grip on his party, for now, and opens the way for the most important shift in the party’s defence policy for a generation.
Corbyn wanted to replace his party’s spokespersons on foreign policy and defence, Hilary Benn and Maria Eagle, with MPs whose outlook was closer to his own. Benn famously supported the Conservative government’s proposal to extend its bombing campaign against Islamic State into Syria, making a memorable speech that directly contradicted his leader’s position. Eagle supports the retention of the Trident nuclear weapons programme, which Corbyn wants to abolish.
Eagle has moved to the culture portfolio, which Corbyn made vacant by sacking Michael Dugher, who had made a series of disobliging remarks about him in the media. He also sacked shadow Europe minister Pat McFadden, who had also made no secret of his disdain for the leader, and had made a Commons intervention that was interpreted as suggesting that Corbyn was soft on terrorism.
The new shadow defence secretary is Emily Thornberry, who shares her leader’s opposition to Trident, making her Labour’s first unilateralist defence spokesperson since Denzil Davies in 1988. She will now, along with former London mayor Ken Livingstone, lead a review of Labour’s policy, which currently supports the nuclear programme. The pro-nuclear policy, which is backed by most Labour MPs and some unions with members working in the defence industry, could be changed at next September’s annual conference.
“Hilary Benn has ensured that he works more closely with Jeremy in the future and that he will be representing the views of the parliamentary Labour party and when it comes down to future debates we won’t have a situation where he will be speaking from the front bench when there is a major disagreement on policy and where the parliamentary Labour party is in the majority against him. He has recognised the mandate that Jeremy Corbyn has with our members, an overwhelming mandate, and he’ll recognise his leadership on this issue,” said shadow chancellor John McDonnell, a close ally of the leader.
McFadden’s sacking and Eagle’s move from the defence portfolio prompted three junior spokespersons from the right of the party to resign in protest, one of them live on television. There could be more moves in junior positions, and further low-profile resignations, in the next few days. But Corbyn can be satisfied that he has made the shadow cabinet a little more in his own image, establishing his hold on defence policy and issuing a warning on foreign policy.
The Labour leader can draw strength from his enduring popularity among Labour members beyond Westminster. But he is also fortunate in his enemies, a parliamentary Labour party whose contempt for Corbyn is only matched by their reluctance to mount a serious challenge to him.
Joe Haines, who was Harold Wilson’s press secretary and is now 87, writes in the current issue of the New Statesman that Corbyn “might once have fitted the role of a deputy manager of a northern friendly society, kind, polite and compassionate yet unable to help his client, but he is intellectually unsuited to be a minister of any kind, let alone a prime minister”.
Haines warns that Labour MPs’ reluctance to risk an open challenge to the leader could make them miss their chance to get rid of him, just as their hesitation kept Gordon Brown in office after he lost their support. Meanwhile, Corbyn continues to put his stamp on the party and move it into fresh ideological territory.