4 Jan 2016

Labour reshuffle: waiting for Jeremy Corbyn

Hilary Benn spent most of the afternoon in his office in Parliament waiting for the call from the leader’s office. He’s now seen Mr Corbyn but for most of the day and much of the last few days he’s been expecting the sack.

The speculation that started on Christmas Eve of a “revenge” or “punishment” reshuffle has not been effectively quashed. It’s relatively easy to do such things. So, rightly or wrongly, Hilary Benn has assumed that he’s going to lose his job.

As friends say, he’s not a petulant man, and would hate to be thought to be flouncing if he refused another job. On the other hand, a demotion inflicted for reasons he might see as punishment would be hard to stomach.

So even if Mr Benn is spared, this episode leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

It would also be a repetition of the saga of the 3 line whip over Syria. It was threatened, right up to the last minute. It was supported by some in Jeremy Corbyn’s team. But in the end some in the Shadow Cabinet flashed their teeth and Jeremy Corbyn backed down.
If Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t move Hilary Benn, the focus could shift to what he does with Maria Eagle, the pro-Trident Shadow Defence Secretary.

Jeremy Corbyn wants to avoid repeating the excruciating experience of Hilary Benn being applauded by Tories and some Labour MPs when the Commons debates Trident in the Spring.

He’ll want to go into the Trident debate with a like-minded Shadow Defence Secretary and he’ll hope that by appointing a unilaterlist, if he can pull that off, he’ll have advanced the cause even if he hasn’t yet changed party policy, which remains multilateralist and in support of renewing Trident.

This is the inverse of a trick pulled off by Neil Kinnock in 1988 when he was trying to pull the party in the other policy direction he appointed a multi-lateralist, Martin O’Neill, to the defence job when party policy was still unilateralist.

The multilateralists believe they can muster significantly more than the 66 Labour MPs who defied Jeremy Corbyn to vote for military action against ISIL in Syria when it comes to the Trident vote. They think they can hold on to the pro-military action majority they thought they had in the Shadow Cabinet on Syria before it disappeared.

To help his side advance, Jeremy Corbyn is determined to run another “plebiscite”/write-in of Labour Party members ahead of such a Commons vote to pile pressure on Labour’s MPs. His allies are trying to get a formal membership referendum arrangement passed at a National Executive meeting soon, though it’s not clear how all members could be polled if the party HQ doesn’t have email addresses for the older and/or more longstanding members.

On the Labour Right, one MP said he sensed the leadership was “rowing back … by not following through on their own threats all they’ve done is weaken (Jeremy’s) position.” Another said the leadership had shown how chaotic and useless it was but a bloodbath averted would be the best option.

Around Jeremy Corbyn, if the hardline approach has been ducked, some will be feeling they’ve missed a moment (as the same people felt over not pushing the 3 line whip on Syria). If he puts a like-minded person in the defence brief, Jeremy Corbyn will comfort himself that he’s made an advance towards unilateralism.

All of which assumes he’s gone for the less drastic option.

Whatever happens, spare an extra thought for Hilary Benn in all this. I hear the Leeds MP’s car was completely flooded as his constituency was inundated with water over the Christmas break.

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