Just how significant is the unexpected departure of Andrew Fisher, Jeremy Corbyn’s influential head of policy, from the Labour leader’s office? This morning’s Sunday Times splash, which reports that Fisher has concluded that Labour cannot win the next election and quotes a valedictory memo in which he robustly criticised his colleagues, is all anybody in Brighton is talking about this morning.
Though the leadership has denied or disputed the contents of the memo, the story is not quite so straightforward: Fisher, who has a young son, told Labour staff last night that he was leaving for family reasons, and in any case is very much still in post for the time being. Not only is he at this week’s conference as a member of Corbyn’s team, but he also accompanied his boss to his Marr interview this morning in a public show of unity (and nor has there been any change in his supportive Twitter output). And he has made clear he will stay for any snap election this autumn, which will allow him to reprise his role as the principal author of the party’s manifesto.
Yet the news is a serious blow regardless, and took much of the shadow cabinet by surprise. Just hours before the news of his planned departure broke, Dawn Butler, the shadow equalities secretary, had eulogised his work on the manifesto from the conference stage. Fisher, the only member of the team that won Corbyn the Labour leadership in 2015 left standing, has done more than anyone else to lay the intellectual foundations of Corbynism – not only with the 2017 manifesto, but also through his time working for John McDonnell’s Left Economics Advisory Panel, the engine room for much of the Labour left’s policy thinking during its years of isolation under Blair, Brown and Miliband. His 2014 polemic on the financial crash, The Failed Experiment, is arguably the foundational text of Corbyn’s economic policy. “Brilliant mind,” is a common compliment from colleagues.
“Jeremy has been very dependent on him personally, so it’s a blow,” says one shadow cabinet minister close to Corbyn, describing Fisher’s departure as “personality-driven”.
Behind the scenes, Fisher has also been responsible for much of the unglamorous, technical work of preparing the party for government: in recent months, he had been meeting with former heads of the Downing Street policy unit that colleagues expected him to end up chairing. He also chairs the weekly meeting of shadow cabinet advisers and as such is an important bridge not only between the inner leadership and shadow cabinet, but across shadow departments. As advisers privately acknowledge, departmental teams find coordinating within the shadow cabinet is difficult enough already, and without Fisher, they fear it will only get harder.
It is for that reason as much as any other that Fisher’s departure has triggered considerable anxiety on the frontbench and beyond. Some fear it will ultimately widen the gulf between the leadership, shadow cabinet and PLP. It could well also disrupt the party’s preparations for any election that happens beyond the autumn – an eventuality John McDonnell believes has a 40 per cent chance of happening – as well as the preparation of the next manifesto, which is some way off completion. Those frontbenchers pushing for a more decisive shift on Europe also believe they have lost a key ally. “It’s a real setback for those of us who want a clear Remain line,” reflects a rueful shadow cabinet minister.
Yet despite the high esteem Fisher is held in by many, some believe his departure presents the leadership with an opportunity. “Andrew isn’t particularly good at engaging with key stakeholders, particularly in the PLP, shadow cabinet and staff,” says one shadow cabinet minister involved in Labour’s preparations for office, “and in my view was preventing a truly transformative policy agenda.”
But even those who take that view concede that Fisher’s departure has the potential to cause serious disruption for the leadership ahead of an election, and will provide ammunition for critics both internal and external. And whichever way one slices it, that is something Labour can ill afford.