Senior sources within the Labour Party have spent the past two weeks briefing the media that Jeremy Corbyn was preparing to sack his Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn; it now seems that those briefings were wrong — Benn is staying. We will find out for definite what Corbyn has decided sometime on Tuesday afternoon, but senior Labour sources are now briefing lobby journalists that Benn will keep his job.
One of three things has happened here. Either the media overstated the messages they were being given, Corbyn’s media team overstated the story to journalists, or, as is more likely the case, both of those things happened and Corbyn lost control of the story.
There is no doubt that Corbyn wanted to get rid of Benn. Corbyn was forced to sit with his arms folded in the House of Commons during the vote on whether to extend RAF airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and watch as Benn gave a much-heralded speech backing the motion to authorise the bombing — the exact opposite of what Corbyn wanted to happen. Even Conservative Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said that Benn’s speech will “go down as one of the truly great speeches heard in this place.”
The rumour was that Corbyn would dump Benn and replace him with someone from the left wing of the party who would be much less likely to oppose any of Corbyn’s policies — the press quickly dubbed the plan the “revenge reshuffle.” This rumour got out of hand as people close to Corbyn went public to support the Labour leader’s right to get rid of Benn.
MP Diane Abbott, the Shadow International Development Secretary MP, says Corbyn is her closest friend in politics and defended the principle of a “revenge reshuffle” in a Guardian column last week.
There has been a lot of hysterical talk by Jeremy’s opponents of a “revenge reshuffle” But other Labour leaders have been allowed to reshuffle their team in their own way and in their own time. Why is Jeremy Corbyn the only Labour leader of modern times not allowed a reshuffle?
And as recently as Monday, former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, who is a close ally of Corbyn, told the BBC’s World at One programme that it would be “better to move Hilary Benn to something where he’s in agreement with Jeremy Corbyn rather than where he’s in disagreement.”
Abbott and Livingstone were either out of the loop or Corbyn was planning to get rid of Benn and bottled it at the last minute.
The amount of media speculation over Benn had inadvertently put lots of pressure on Corbyn not to sack him. Benn is a popular MP and is regarded as a uniting figure within Labour who is able to both connect with the left wing of the party and the centrists.
In recent days, the media speculation convinced some of those centrists to openly defend Benn. Pat McFadden, Labour’s shadow Europe minister warned Corbyn that it would be dangerous to get rid of shadow ministers for political reasons and Labour MP Michael Dugher, who has been sacked by Corbyn, warned that a revenge reshuffle would be “inconsistent with what Jeremy has talked about since he got the leadership.”
Not only would Corbyn alienate the wing of his party that McFadden and Dugher represent if he sacked Benn, he would also alienate himself from the some of the unions who are important financial backers of Labour. Some of those unions represent workers in the defence industry and they would be very unhappy if Benn was replaced with someone who shared Corbyn’s pacifist tendencies.
Taking into account the briefings that Corbyn’s team were making to the media, the support given by Corbyn’s allies for removing Benn from his job, and the enemies Corbyn would make if he removed Benn from his shadow cabinet altogether, it would make sense for Corbyn to try and move Benn to another position instead of totally removing him from the shadow cabinet.
If this is what happened on Monday night, it could explain why the story has changed and it looks like Benn is keeping his job. This is because if Corbyn tried to move Benn and not fire him, he would have given leverage to Benn. Put simply, if he had refused to accept the move, Benn would have made himself unsackable. This dangerous political manoeuvring isn’t uncommon, Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has walked into several reshuffle meetings with a resignation letter already written.
If Benn does stay, Labour will have managed to inflict two weeks of negative media attention on themselves for no good reason and annoyed both Corbyn’s supporters who wanted Benn out and Corbyn’s enemies who feel they were targetted by the media briefings.
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