A raucous reshuffle or a fortification for Corbyn?

Our Public Affairs team examines some of the highlights from Jeremy Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet reshuffle.

A cabinet reshuffle is rarely an exercise in precision. The most successful work swiftly and tactically to reduce the chances of fallout in their own ranks and confusion and mixed messages in the parliamentary press pack; that they typically begin late at night when those being moved are less able to organise a reaction.

The latest Labour reshuffle was a little different. It always had the potential for difficulty and would require skilful management. Jeremy Corbyn’s first shadow cabinet was appointed with some haste and was founded upon a vision of a team open about being divided on some key issues - part of the new style of doing politics that Mr Corbyn champions, encouraging debate rather than whipping hard to follow the party line.

In the end it proved too difficult to maintain. Endless headlines about how a divided shadow cabinet could not constitute an effective opposition fed a news cycle fixated on internal party politics rather than the new policies the shadow cabinet was trying to promote. This was not helped by some very public disagreements, first about Trident and then about Syria, which meant Labour became a slow-train headed towards an inevitable shake-up at the top.

Before Christmas, journalists close to the party had been briefed to expect news. Corbyn’s targets were alert. However, rather than a short reshuffle lasting little more than a night-time news cycle, we witnessed a drawn-out series of very public resignations and reactive appointments, the last of which were made nearly two weeks after the reshuffle started.

Below we take a look at our top three cabinet reshuffle events.

Transport: In, Andy McDonald– Out, Jonathan Reynolds

Jonathan Reynolds resigned from his position as shadow rail minister in solidarity with Pat McFadden who had been removed from his position as shadow minister for Europe, supposedly following his criticism of groups such as the Stop the War Coalition during the debate concerning Syrian intervention.

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) was appointed to fill the position. A vigorous campaigner against the reprivatisation of the East Coast Main Line - which he called “absurd” and “baffling” - his appointment can be considered a solidification of the leader’s agenda to nationalise. Mr McDonald, a vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Rail in the North, will likely be a strong advocate for more investment in the North East’s under-funded transport infrastructure.

Culture, Media and Sport: In, Maria Eagle – Out, Michael Dugher

The departure of Michael Dugher from the Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) brief immediately divided the party. Allies of the leader hinted that Mr Dugher’s removal was due to his criticism of both the Stop the War Coalition and the Corbyn-backing campaign group Momentum. He was also accused of negatively coining the term “revenge reshuffle” following rumours that Hilary Benn would lose his job as shadow foreign secretary after he so openly opposed Corbyn on Syrian military intervention.

Maria Eagle’s shift from Defence to CMS plays precisely on its relatively benign brief and moves Ms Eagle out of a role on which her views on Trident were at odds with her leader’s.

Defence: In, Emily Thornberry – Out, Maria Eagle

The most high-profile and politically motivated change came early on in the reshuffle. Maria Eagle’s departure from Defence was expected and followed from her open disagreement with Jeremy Corbyn’s on the issue of unilateral nuclear disarmament. She was due to chair Labour’s Defence Review, the outcome of which is suspected to be the adoption of Corbyn’s stance on nuclear disarmament.

A halfway house of measures had been attempted by Corbyn to mitigate Eagle’s grip on the Defence Review by appointing Ken Livingstone, another unilateralist, to be its co-chair, causing much alarm amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party. However the issue is not as clear cut as to fall along the usual lines of division. Unite the Union, which backed Corbyn for leader, expressed its support for the renewal of Trident by pledging to vote against a policy change at September’s party conference. The union’s general secretary Len McCluskey argued that he would contest any motion that would jeopardise jobs for his members. Following the appointment of Emily Thornberry, who remains against the renewal of Trident, Ken Livingstone stepped down from this role leaving Ms Thornberry to carry out the review alone - albeit feeding in to a wider policy review which Livingstone now heads.

Regardless of who chairs the Defence Review, it’s fair to say that any suggestion that Labour is set to adopt a policy against the renewal of Trident would incense many of its MPs and could also disillusion the wider public, who are broadly in favour of renewal if recent YouGov polling is to be believed. It would, however, find favour with the Labour grassroots – along with those 200,000 new members - who are more averse to funding Trident when many essential services are suffering from budget cuts.

Winners and losers

Labour’s reshuffle has some interesting parallels with one of the most effective reshuffles in recent history. In 1983 a number of government ministers were also in open disagreement with both the ideology and the practice of Thatcherism. However, Margaret Thatcher’s ensuing reshuffle, by purging her cabinet of the so-called “wets” and Heathites, strengthened her hand and fortified the government by reducing division. Corbyn, although causing division is simultaneously unifying his cabinet. In the end any damage caused may turn out to just be collateral.

For a full list of the current government and their opposition shadows, see Freshwater’s latest infographic.


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Impact Report 2017

Impact report 2017