Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, the shadow chancellor refused to say that Hilary Benn would keep his job, instead saying: “The future Labour administration will be determined by the leader of the Labour party.”
It follows unsourced briefings to several newspapers claiming that Benn and the shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle, could be moved from their roles next week.
McDonnell added that Benn had “an important part to play” for Labour but did not say he would keep his current role.
It is understood Corbyn wants the party to speak with one voice on matters relating to defence and military intervention abroad after recent divisions, most notably over policy on Syria.
Benn, who was praised by the right and the centre of the party for his speech supporting government proposals to bomb Isis in Syria, and Eagle are seen as vulnerable in any reshuffle, although other figures could also be affected.
However, any attempt to remove either could result in a damaging conflict across the parliamentary Labour party and could result in resignations from the shadow cabinet, according to one shadow cabinet source.
Corbyn’s unilateralism, and opposition to military intervention were a key feature of his leadership campaign. Eagle is believed to be at risk because she is a staunch defender of Trident, while Benn’s position is being seen as problematic because he strongly supported military intervention against Islamic State in Syria after Corbyn spoke out against it.
Tensions surrounding the expected reshuffle were stoked by Labour whip Grahame Morris who urged Corbyn to sack disloyal shadow ministers.
“This is what Jeremy Corbyn should do in 2016 - starting with a reshuffle that gets rid of mutineers,” he wrote on Twitter.
His comment provoked an angry response from Labour backbencher Ian Austin, who said Morris had previously been a serial rebel: “Very funny: grahamemorris, who voted against whip repeatedly, wants people sacked after a free vote! Come on Grahame, name the ‘mutineers’!” he responded on Twitter.
The shadow cabinet reshuffle is due in the new year, although claims that Monday 4 January has already been pencilled in as the day for it to happen have been discounted, as have claims that Corbyn has already decided to appoint Diane Abbott as the new shadow foreign secretary or to replace Rosie Winterton, the chief whip, with the Corbyn loyalist Jon Trickett.
The full scale of Labour’s reshuffle has not been decided. Corbyn’s main concern is said to be ensuring the party has a coherent voice on questions relating to the deployment of British power abroad, but he may well go further than reallocating defence or foreign affairs. Corbyn accepts that his first shadow cabinet was put together quickly.
His allies also believe that the Labour split over foreign policy has overshadowed the extent to which the shadow cabinet is united on economic and domestic matters. McDonnell said recently: “On domestic politics, there is virtually nothing between us [members of the shadow cabinet], absolutely nothing, other than some want to go faster than others.”
One party source said Labour’s leader was receiving conflicting advice from his closest confidantes as to whether to launch a major reshuffle. “Some want to go all out for a hard-left agenda now. Others want to try and take the party with him. But if Benn or Eagle go [from the cabinet], others might follow,” the source said.
Another speculated that this might be the ideal time to bring back the former party leader Ed Miliband to the shadow cabinet. “Jeremy wants Ed back. If Ed was persuaded to return to energy, it would give an open door to a reshuffle without all the focus being on the losers,” the party figure added.
Sources close to Miliband have downplayed any speculation that he might rejoin the shadow cabinet in January. A source close to Benn said he did not know of any plans for a reshuffle and has been concentrating on helping constituents whose lives have been devastated by the floods.
This article was written by Rajeev Syal, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 29th December 2015 09.10 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010