Varying rumours that Jeremy Corbyn is set to announce a cabinet reshuffle as early as next week continue to spread. Corbyn’s views on foreign policy are openly opposed to those of Hilary Benn, Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Maria Eagle, Shadow Defence Secretary, as demonstrated by the recent debacle that was Labour’s lack of a clear position on military intervention in Syria. He is also at odds with Rosie Winterton, Labour’s chief whip, who broke from parliamentary convention by abstaining from the Syria vote. No wonder yesterday John McDonnell refused to confirm whether Hilary Benn would keep his job and Corbyn is reportedly calling for consistent messaging on defence and foreign policy.
The Shadow Cabinet reshuffle had been rumoured for Monday 4 January, but this is now expected to be pushed back, a result of Benn’s constituency suffering in the current flooding – it wouldn’t look great if Corbyn were to sack Benn in the midst of a national crisis. Then again, many within the wider party are calling for action to enable Labour to speak with a coherent voice on these key issues. A more cynical observer might suggest that Corbyn wants rid of Benn and Eagle ahead of the launch of the Fabian Society’s report Outward to the World: how the left’s foreign policy can face the future, on Tuesday 19 January, at which Benn is delivering a keynote speech. Although we do not yet know the central arguments/recommendations of the report it is likely they will differ to Corbyn’s unilateralist and pacifistic views.
Corbyn faces another problem in that with the avowed support of only a small proportion of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) there is a perceived shortage of talent waiting in the wings to replace either Benn or Eagle (who happens to retain the support of her sister, Angela – Shadow First Secretary of State, and Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills). The prospect of Dianne Abbott replacing Benn as Shadow Foreign Secretary does not exactly inspire confidence, so it is probable that any replacements would come from the ranks of the relatively unknown; from the mid-ranking careerists, and the new intake.
If the reshuffle does take place soon and Corbyn’s new appointments fail to make the grade then his decision to expel Benn from the shadow frontbench could prove to be his downfall. Benn could emerge as a serious leadership contender to Corbyn – one that he would have to suppress even further with the support of Labour party members, whilst simultaneously provoking further revolt from the PLP.
We’ll just have to wait and see as to what happens next.