In the early days of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, collective responsibility often appeared an obsolete concept, so regularly did shadow cabinet ministers flout the leadership’s line. But as Corbyn’s political strength has grown, his team have imposed discipline with far more rigour.
Early this evening, Owen Smith, Corbyn’s 2016 leadership opponent, was sacked as shadow Northern Ireland secretary having called for a public referendum on the final Brexit deal and continued single market membership. By unashamedly disregarding the agreed position, Smith was seen as breaching the trust Corbyn had placed in him.
The sacking does not, however, show that the Labour leader is uniquely ruthless or intolerant of dissent. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would have dismissed anyone who so clearly defied the party line.
Smith tweeted in response: “Just been sacked by @jeremycorbyn for my long held views on the damage #Brexit will do to the Good Friday Agreement & the economy of the entire U.K. Those views are shared by Labour members & supporters and I will continue to speak up for them, and in the interest of our country.”
Labour simultaneously announced that Smith would be replaced by Tony Lloyd, the former chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party and another MP from the party’s soft left.
Corbyn said: “Tony is a highly experienced former Government Minister who is committed to ensuring that peace in Northern Ireland is maintained and helping to steer the devolution deal back on track.”
Lloyd said: “As we leave the European Union, ensuring there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is of paramount importance and this will be my number one priority. This is an incredibly important job, with a huge in-tray and I am looking forward to starting work.”
The move is, in some respects, unsurprising. In 2017, Labour shadow ministers who voted not to trigger Article 50 and who backed single market membership were sacked. Earlier this year, Corbyn ally Chris Williamson agreed to resign as shadow fire minister for advocating higher council tax on valuable properties. The leadership could not afford to be seen as more tolerant of a past opponent. And Corbyn’s increased political strength means he can fill shadow cabinet vacancies far more easily than in the past.
But above all, Smith’s sacking demonstrates the leadership’s determination to maintain its current Brexit stance. When Corbyn backed UK membership of “a customs union”, he was careful to restate his opposition to single market membership (having voted against its original creation) and he vowed to “respect the result of the referendum”.
Brexit pits two Bennite principles – Euroscepticism and members’ rights – against each other. As polls have consistently shown, Labour members overwhelmingly favour single market membership and a second referendum. But Corbyn’s Euroscepticism has trumped his oft-expressed commitment to internal democracy.
Some of the Labour leader’s opponents hope to drive a wedge between him and his supporters on the issue of Brexit. But to date, they have failed to do so (indeed, Smith lost by a landslide to Corbyn despite calling for a new Brexit referendum). Labour faces little pressure from the pro-EU Liberal Democrats (who struggle to exceed 7 per cent in the polls) and members remain more than satisfied with Corbyn’s leadership. By backing customs union membership, he has opened a new dividing line with the Tories and Labour has sufficient grounds to vote against the final Brexit deal in the Commons. Should Britain leave the EU, it is the Conservatives, not Corbyn, who will be blamed.
Though a further shift cannot be ruled out (Labour has not definitively rejected a new referendum), Smith’s sacking shows that the Eurosceptic Corbyn is fighting to resist it.