AS RESHUFFLES go, Jeremy Corbyn’s tweaks to his shadow cabinet were relatively few. They were, however, momentous. In a marathon of meetings spanning three days (tired and hungry lobby journalists lurking in the corridors outside), the Labour Party’s leader cracked down on dissent, tightened his grip on the party and prepared the ground for an almighty battle on its stance on Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent.
He did so in four moves. First, he sacked Michael Dugher (above, second from left), the shadow culture secretary, apparently for comments critical of left-wing organisations close to the Labour leader and for warning—correctly, as it transpired—of an impending “revenge reshuffle”. Second, and in a similar vein, Mr Corbyn fired Pat McFadden, his capable and well-liked shadow Europe minister. Mr McFadden’s crime was to have invited the prime minister, during a debate following the Paris attacks in November, to stress that the blame did not lie with the West (highlighting, by contrast, the ambivalence of Mr Corbyn and his allies on the subject). By firing him, Labour’s leader made clear his intention to do battle on the territory of foreign and security policy, on which during his decades as a backbencher he was mostly at odds with his party.
This too was the thrust of his third move: to keep Hilary Benn, his shadow foreign secretary (above, far right), in place but clip his wings. Last month Mr Benn had spoken, unlike Mr Corbyn, for British military intervention against the Islamic State in Syria. He reportedly kept his job only by promising not to break from the leadership on such matters again. Finally, and most significantly, the Labour leader moved Maria Eagle (above, second from right) from defence to Mr Dugher’s former job, replacing her with Emily Thornberry (below)—a critic of Trident.
All of this belies assumptions made in the immediate aftermath of Mr Corbyn’s victory in Labour’s leadership election in September: that the new leader, far to the left of most of his MPs, would have to compromise frantically to keep his job and would soon be ousted nonetheless. Today the landscape looks quite different. The absence of a strong, moderate rival—and the reluctance of MPs on that wing of the party to cause a ruckus—is more apparent. So too is the size, organising ability and determination to seize control of the party of its Corbynite wing, greatly swollen by tens of thousands of new, left-wing members. An unexpectedly resounding victory in a by-election in Oldham last month, though almost entirely a function of a strong local candidate, put Mr Corbyn’s critics on the back foot. For now, he is not going anywhere.
That dooms Labour’s electoral prospects. But it also means that a force increasingly confident in its scepticism of Western defence and security policy has taken hold at the heart of British politics at a time when such matters are newly live and sensitive. The Commons will soon debate new measures to combat terrorism. British planes are now operating over Iraq and Syria. M
ost significantly, MPs are due to vote later this year on the renewal of Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent. Mr Corbyn is clearly determined to reinstate his party’s old, unilateralist stance on this. His reshuffle seems to suggest that, having been forced by his shadow cabinet to offer a free vote on Syria, he is determined to stay his (mostly pro-renewal) MPs’ hands on Trident. That will not come without a battle; the party is still formally committed to the nuclear deterrent. But it is one that Mr Corbyn is, especially now, capable of fighting and winning.
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