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4 January 2016

The risks and rewards for Jeremy Corbyn of his reshuffle

The Labour leader could achieve greater shadow cabinet unity but at the cost of further polarising his party. 

By George Eaton

We now have it from the man himself. When asked this morning about reported changes to his shadow cabinet, Jeremy Corbyn spoke of “the reshuffle” (“I’m not talking about the reshuffle this morning”), thus confirming that one was imminent. The Labour leader will have “one-on-one” meetings with colleagues today and appointments could begin as early as this afternoon (ahead of parliament’s return tomorrow). The pre-emptive warning by shadow cabinet members Michael Dugher and Jonathan Ashworth to avoid a “revenge reshuffle” has been ignored. 

There were two events that precipitated this moment. The first was the recent Commons vote on Syria air strikes which exposed the chasm between Corbyn and 11 of his shadow cabinet members (most notably shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn). The second was Labour’s resounding victory in the Oldham West by-election, which gave the leader the strength to make changes. 

As has long been clear, Benn and pro-Trident defence secretary Maria Eagle will both likely be moved or sacked. “Foreign policy is his [Corbyn’s] big thing,” one Corbyn ally told me by way of explanation. “For some leaders it’s Europe, for some it’s the economy, for Jeremy it’s foreign policy.” After Benn’s dramatic speech in favour of air strikes, which so contradicted his own, Corbyn resolved that Benn’s position was untenable.

Eagle, an unambiguous supporter of Trident (unlike her unilateralist leader) is set to be moved in advance of this year’s Commons vote on its renewal. Benn’s much-lauded performance convinced Corbyn’s team that they could not allow another situation in which the leader was so clearly undermined from the despatch box. A frontbencher derided suggestions that the shadow cabinet would be reduced to “clones and zombies” (“he doesn’t have the numbers” – as few as 13 of Corbyn’s current colleagues voted for him) but distinguished between “irreconcilable” and “manageable” differences. 

It is Emily Thornberry, the former shadow attonery general and MP for Islington South, the neighbouring constituency to Corbyn’s, who is most likely to replace Benn. As well as ensuring greater unity on foreign policy (Thornberry opposed the Syrian intervention), this would also give Labour a woman at the top (the leader, deputy leader, shadow chancellor, shadow home secretary and shadow foreign secretary are all men). Sources close to Corbyn and to Andy Burnham have dismissed the suggestion that Burnham and Benn could swap jobs. 

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Far fewer names have been linked with the post of shadow defence secretary. Unlike in the case of Syria, Corbyn represents a minority in the shadow cabinet. There are just five other confirmed opponents of Trident (John McDonnell, Jon Trickett, Diane Abbott, Ian Murray and Nia Griffith). Clive Lewis, a Corbyn loyalist and a unilateralist, stated this morning that he did not want the post having only become an MP eight months ago. Lisa Nandy, the shadow energy secretary and a Trident sceptic, is a possible alternative. 

Dugher, the shadow culture secretary, who has been sharply critical of the pro-Corbyn group Momentum and the leader’s ally Ken Livingstone in recent weeks, is expected to be sacked, with some suggesting that Eagle may be offered his post. 

The whips office is enough target for changes. Corbyn allies have long told him that he needs more of “his own people” in place, a view he came to agree with following the Syria vote. The leader’s office believe the whips misled them about the scale of support for air strikes (it was suggested that up to 100 MPs could vote in favour – only 66 did), forcing Corbyn to concede a free vote. Others counter that it was “intimidation” by opponents of military action that forced many to change sides.

After public support from shadow cabinet members and MPs, chief whip Rosie Winterton, who was awarded a damehood in the new year’s honours, is likely to remain in place. But there could well be changes below her. One shadow minister told me that “the whole project would be fucked” if the leader failed to act. 

For Corbyn, the rewards of the reshuffle are clear: greater shadow cabinet unity on foreign policy and defence – two totemic issues for him. But so are the risks. The decision to reshuffle his team just four months after being elected, against the appeals of many MPs (from all wings of the party), will further reduce goodwill and inspire greater rebellion. One shadow cabinet minister recently told me there would be “carnage” if Benn and Eagle were removed. 

Should Corbyn suffer political failures in the months ahead, his allies will also have less capacity to pin the blame on others. But given his pre-existing weakness among the parliamentary party, many Corbynites believe the greatest risk is disappointing his supporters. Appointing a shadow cabinet that better reflects his mandate (anti-war and anti-Trident), they argue, is an essential means of ensuring he does not do so. 

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