27 June 2016

Divide and disaster in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet


On Friday, the Prime Minister announced his resignation, triggering a leadership crisis in the Conservative Party. Boris Johnson is staking his claim, while others in the party are scrambling to find an “anyone but Boris” candidate. Today, David Cameron is holding a post-Brexit cabinet meeting, which promises to be an excruciatingly awkward affair for all involved.

This would be the ideal time for a show of strength and stability from the opposition. Instead, yet again Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has managed to turn a position of strength into a meltdown over his leadership.

It began on Saturday, when Corbyn sacked his shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn after rumours he was staging a coup. Benn, speaking for almost everyone in the country aside from Corbyn’s loyal band of fanatical supporters, said “There is no confidence to win the next election if Jeremy continues as leader”.

The sacking of Benn was followed by the walkout of at least 18 frontbenchers, mostly notably shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander, shadow education secretary Lucy Powell, and shadow business secretary Angela Eagle. Corbyn has responded by ignoring all criticism, and stacking his shadow cabinet with a fresh band of loyalists who can be counted on not to disagree with his disastrous leadership style. (For example. these include Emily Thornberry as shadow foreign secretary and Clive Lewis as shadow defence secretary, who are both adamantly against the renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear programme – a key issue of division between Corbyn and the majority of Labour MPs.)

There is a certain sense of deja vue. In January, rumours were flying about a high stakes reshuffle which would see Benn moved to a less influential role. In the end only one minor front-bencher was sacked, and although three more resigned in protest, there were no high profile rearrangements. It was all rather anti-climactic.

Corbyn is accused of having failed to make a strong enough case for Remain in the Labour heartlands, which overwhelmingly voted Leave in the EU referendum despite the official Labour stance. This is hardly surprising, as Corbyn has made his opposition to the EU clear for the past 30 years. During his ostensibly Pro Remain speeches on the campaign trail, he tied himself in convoluted knots trying to argue that the EU was bad, but that an anti-EU Tory government would be worse. He failed to visit crucial swing regions, preferring instead to stay in comfortably Remain areas and lap up admiration from adoring Corbynistas.

It is not even clear how Corbyn himself voted. Chris Bryant, the MP for Rhondda and former Shadow Commons leader who resigned on Saturday, has claimed Corbyn would not even confirm he voted Remain in Thursday’s referendum. Anger is building at Corbyn for refusing to back the EU passionately enough, along with resentment at the way he has annihilated Labour’s electability during his 10 months as leader.

Now Corbyn may be in serious trouble. Even Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson has turned against him, saying Corbyn has “no authority” within his own party and needs to go.

Labour MPs are considering a vote of no confidence against Corbyn, which could be held as early as tomorrow. There are also murmurings of a potential breakaway, with MPs leaving Corbyn’s Labour to form an alternative opposition, or join the Lib Dems, which leader Tim Farron is trying to revive from the dead.

All this is great news for the future Tory leader, who will likely be able to call a snap election with little fear thanks to the incompetent opposition. Take this as proof that there is no Conservative Party failure so catastrophic that Jeremy Corbyn will not be able to turn it to his disadvantage.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.