Reshuffle: The Best Show in Town

The Labour reshuffle has finally finished. Joseph Ward says it was a true sign of Corbyn’s strength as a leader.

Corbyn with the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, who escaped the firing line (Photo: The Guardian)

Corbyn with the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, who escaped the firing line (Photo: The Guardian)

On Tuesday, one of the most highly anticipated shadow cabinet reshuffles in history began. Yes, it was long, but it was also a true sign of Corbyn’s leadership. Many on the right of the party have branded this as nothing more than a “revenge reshuffle.” On the other hand, those more loyal to Corbyn have retorted that it is nothing more than Corbyn exerting his right as leader to reshuffle and have a cabinet that shares his vision for Britain’s future. As always with politics, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The first and only true casualty of the reshuffle was Michael Dugher. Dugher, who had been promoted to shadow cabinet rank in October 2013 as shadow minister for the Cabinet Office and then again to shadow secretary of state for transport following the Jim Murphy reshuffle in late 2014, lost his culture, media and sport portfolio early in the day. After a heavy rebuke from many of his colleagues, the sulking Dugher caused heavy debate with his controversial comments, claiming his firing was because of his “straight talking, honest politics,” on his Twitter page.

What the firing did in truth was reveal one major fact: Corbyn is truly the leader of the Labour Party. Dugher, who ran Burnham’s campaign for leadership, was a close colleague of numerous members socially and ideologically. Many, during the Christmas period, saw his job as safe, especially with Tom Watson’s support. However, Corbyn’s strong message is that he expects his shadow cabinet to fully buy into the idea of collective responsibility from now on.

It was Maria Eagle who was then demoted to Dugher’s former brief, in order to avoid the awkward repeat of the Hilary Benn moment where the leader and shadow secretary disagreed on the key political issue of Trident. While keeping the political versatility of his cabinet, this appeared to be a tactical move and not just one of revenge. Although, it has become a fact that for every good decision Corbyn makes, a mistake is made to counteract any progress that could possibly be made. And lo, a mistake did come.

Eagle’s replacement was none other than Corbyn’s neighbour, Emily Thornberry. While some still chastise her for her unwise Rochester remarks, Thornberry is still a fantastic MP and brilliant orator. The true mistake of her hiring is not the fact that she isn’t capable – which she certainly is – but that the decision was tepid and desperate. The two clearly have a close relationship being the two Islington MPs, however, turning to his neighbour shows that the position was not only highly unwanted but uncontested. To risk the media spotlight this early is a poor choice and it isn’t worth it just for one extra ally. It also adds even more London MPs into the shadow cabinet making a grand total of six. Labour’s London-centric image is not something Corbyn should be endorsing considering regaining the seats Labour lost in the Midlands in the past few elections is one of Corbyn’s key challenges on the path to victory.

Finally, the true controversy of this reshuffle was the job of Hilary Benn. There was speculation of a mass walk-out at the top of the party had Corbyn sacked him, with up to eight senior members threatening to leave the shadow cabinet. If he was kept in his job, Corbyn would have be seen as weak and the whole point of the reshuffle mundane and parochial. Benn stayed. However, the true problem with not sacking Benn was that it undermined the Corbyn camp’s branding of it as forming an aligned cabinet and made the event appear to be nothing more than a revenge reshuffle. If the reshuffle was truly about a unified message, Benn would have had to go. By not following through with his plan, there is a certain indication of the move simply being a Blairite purge. Britain is well known for its desire for a strong leader which means Corbyn has to be tough and stick to his guns. If he can’t do it in his own party’s reshuffle, he’ll struggle to convince anyone he can do it in charge of a country. I’m no Corbyn fan but he had to sack Benn for his own security.

Corbyn’s mandate is, for now, safe. While he is in a position of strength, he needs to take the lead because the whole event was shambolic, laborious and dangerous. Corbyn will probably face a leadership challenge. All he has to do is make sure that final blow is not dealt by one of his allies.

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