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7 January 2016

Ken Livingstone calls the Shadow Cabinet’s bluff

The last few days have revealed that the chance of a mass walkout are thin.

By Stephen Bush

An attack against one is an attack on all – that’s the doctrine of Nato, the international body that Ken Livingstone suggested Labour could contemplate leaving, in remarks that were slapped down by the leadership today.

But it’s also the threat – and to Jeremy Corbyn’s internal opponents, the comfort – that underpins the fractious relationship between the Labour leader and his critics within Labour.  When Corbyn formed his first Cabinet, I identified a group I dubbed the “soft right” – a group of politicians drawn from the various tribes of the Labour right who had, in the words of one, decided that “We’re going to have to try to make this work.”.  If they resigned en bloc, they could, potentially, have brought Corbyn crashing down.

Various frontbenchers privately threatened mass resignations if Hilary Benn were sacked from the shadow cabinet, while Rosie Winterton is said to have a warned of a walkout if Benn were displaced  – contributing to his survival in post. Andy Burnham is on the record as threatening to resign from the shadow cabinet if he were asked to back banning Trident.

That’s nothing new. One of the reasons why Cabinet reshuffles are so fraught is that sackings – unless they are in the wake of a major scandal – always carry the risk that the sacked politician’s allies will go with them. For Benn in 2015, read Gordon Brown anytime from 2001, or the many supporters of Ed Balls or David Miliband in Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet. (Or, indeed, the continued political survival of IDS for an example on the Conservative side.)

My hunch is that, even if the nuclear option of a mass resignation were to come about, Corbyn would be able to manage fine with a slimmed-down frontbench of perhaps 30 MPs, made up of loyalists and relatively sympathetic politicians, like Lisa Nandy, Owen Smith, Emily Thornberry and Chi Onwurah.  There’s no particular prerogative to “man mark” the government and a zonal defence might be just as effective as the current set-up.

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But what we’ve learned both from Livingstone’s remarks and the 66-hour reshuffle is this: Corbyn will never need to find out if I’m right. The “nuclear option” will never be used.

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Yes, as George reports, the leadership will allow a free vote on Trident renewal, but Labour is de facto a unilateralist party regardless of the policy voted on by its party conference. Both its Prime Minister-designate and its putative shadow defence secretary are against the use of Trident. If Corbyn becomes Prime Minister in 2020, Britain will cease to be a nuclear power, regardless of whether Andy Burnham is forced to vote to scrap it or not.

But that change in policy triggered just one resignation – in the shape of Kevan Jones, from the party’s centre. (The sacking of Pat McFadden triggered a further two resignations for unrelated reasons.) But a raft of politicians who share Jones’ concerns privately remain in post – and Livingstone’s suggestion that the Labour party might leave Nato was met with silence from the frontbench. A handful of backbenchers criticised it – but from the shadow cabinet, nothing. 

That these red lines have been crossed without consequence suggests that the shadow cabinet’s resolve is not as strong as we might think. My instinct is whenever Corbyn embarks on his next reshuffle, he will feel far bolder in the scale of changes he makes.