David Cameron’s jubilant use of Shakespearean prose to describe Labour’s latest of internal disputes was rather fitting, but the so-called ‘revenge reshuffle’ was not as much a tragedy for Jeremy Corbyn as media vultures had suggested.
In reality, it turned out to be damp squib. Hilary Benn, the Shadow Foreign Secretary who produced ‘that’ rousing speech last December, ultimately survived the axe. Any idea of a Stalinist purge is somewhat discredited when the most outspoken frontbench arbiter of Syrian air strikes and the Trident missile system remains in one of the most key Shadow Cabinet jobs.
Perhaps that is not cynical enough. Reports emerged this morning of a ‘gagging clause’; exchanging Benn’s silence over key foreign policy issues for his ongoing employment. Would Corbyn have pushed Benn if he had the chance, and if the situation had been handled more delicately? Maybe. But speculation of that kind is meaningless, we will never know for sure. What we do know is that the Labour leader received an extraordinary mandate from the party faithful back in September; an overwhelming endorsement of trust to spearhead Labour’s new era in the full knowledge of his views on the defining foreign policy issues of the day. With Benn retaining his job, it would have been truly remarkable for the Shadow Defence Secretary to share contrary views to the Labour leader on Trident as well. Therefore, the decision to replace Maria Eagle with unilateralist Emily Thornberry is actually quite unspectacular, and certainly the right course of action for a man with such a tremendous democratic mandate.
The reaction of junior ministers Jonathan Reynolds and Stephen Doughty in promptly resigning, and in quite a dramatic way, does suggest there were perhaps more sinister undercurrents and division within the Labour ranks. But surely no more so than the Conservatives, who in case you had forgotten, expertly whispered earlier this week that they will be allowing MPs to campaign for either side in the upcoming European Referendum to avert the sharp splits within the party. The difference between the two parties is the handling of the situation. There is no denying that Corbyn has dealt with his cabinet tinkering appallingly. Reshuffles are always messy, and the aim is to attract the least amount of publicity as possible. In contrast, Labour have dragged it out for weeks; amplifying the focus on their internal divisions which have been bubbling since Corbyn’s election.
Parties are broad churches. The perpetual conundrum for a leader is to balance an accommodation of rivalling ideological strands in order to appease them, while ensuring that a clear, focused and driven policy agenda is realised. The convention of collective cabinet responsibility has traditionally overcome this problem, yet it is the Conservatives who have stuck to it far more effectively this political year. It appears that Corbyn has now managed to achieve this. To avoid any future spats, Labour would do well to learn some lessons from the Prime Minister on PR and managing similar political obstacles. Ultimately however, the ‘revenge reshuffle’ amounted to little more than an inexperienced leader rightly exercising his strong democratic mandate. The next cabinet changes, whenever they may be, will no doubt be far less entertaining.
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