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6 January 2016

Jeremy Corbyn’s first reshuffle: the changes are small but important

Jeremy Corbyn has put himself in a good position for the battles to come.

By Stephen Bush

“The truth is that these events are always very bad and perhaps the worst of all the duties of a PM,” Harold Macmillan wrote in his diary before he prepared for the reshuffle that came to be known as the Night of the Long Knives.

Having sacked his Chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd, and fearing resignations by Lloyd’s allies, Macmillan decided to drown out their protests with a bigger purge, and sacked a third of his Cabinet in total.

Macmillan’s massacre – which started at six o’clock in the evening on 12 July 1962 and ended shortly before seven in the evening on 13 July 1962 – held the dubious distinction of being the longest reshuffle since universal suffrage at 25 hours and the longest since 1851, which lasted for a month.

But Macmillan’s record was smashed by Jeremy Corbyn in his second reshuffle as leader, who took 33 hours to reconfigure his frontbench.

But there the similarities end. Macmillan’s government never recovered its balance after his reshuffle – Corbyn is in a better position for the struggles to come.

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That’s despite the fact that Jon Ashworth and Maria Eagle, from the party’s centre, remains as one of Corbyn’s NEC picks and the Whips’ Office remains populated by MPs who are, for the most part, Corbyn-sceptics.

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Surprisingly, it appears that not only has Rosie Winterton kept her job as Chief Whip, but that Alan Simpson and Mark Tami will remain in post as her deputies, too. But that is probably good news for Corbynism if not Corbyn in the medium term. Putting more sympathetic MPs in backroom roles in the Whips’ Office means that the next generation of the Labour left would have remained out of the public eye – Team Corbyn’s big media problem at present is that Diane Abbott remains the only politician who is both impeccably pro-Corbyn and knows her way around a television studio. 

Elsewhere, not everything when as well as some of Corbyn’s allies might have hoped. Hilary Benn remains in place after lobbying by his colleagues, many of whom would have walked out if Benn had been fired. That ensured an all-male top four – Andy Burnham at Home is considered immovable, while John McDonnell is essential to the project just as Gordon Brown and George Osborne were and are essential to Tony Blair and David Cameron.

But Corbyn ended up with a bigger prize in the end, in the shape of the Defence brief. Maria Eagle remains in the shadow cabinet but at Culture, while, for the first time since 1988, the Defence brief is held by a unilateralist in the shape of Emily Thornberry.

It is important to understand that while the era of New Labour might be the crucial period as far as younger supporters of Corbyn and his supportive commentators are concerned, for the major players both around the leadership in Westminster and in the country, it is Neil Kinnock’s leadership of the party that is marks Labour’s fall from grace, not the Blair-Brown years.

“It was emblematic of Neil Kinnock’s turn to the right,” Diane Abbott told me recently, “that he abandoned his lifelong commitment to nuclear disarmament.” Corbyn and his allies now have a golden opportunity to undo Kinnock’s apostasy over the next year – with a policy change at party conference next year and with more full-throated opposition to the deterrent now that Eagle, who favours retaining Trident, is no longer in the Defence brief. While “revenge” for the battle gone over Syria may have been delayed, Corbyn is a better place for the one to come over Trident.