Jeremy Corbyn faces a continuing struggle to assert his authority over the shadow cabinet after Hilary Benn directly challenged the central aim of his lengthy reshuffle: to achieve a consensus over foreign and defence policy.
In a sign that deep divisions on the Labour frontbench have not been bridged by the reshuffle, the shadow foreign secretary said he would carry on in his post exactly as he had before.
“I haven’t been muzzled,” Benn said in remarks that were at odds with statements made by the leadership, which claimed that Benn had agreed to act collectively with Corbyn at all times.
As he left his London home for the House of Commons, the shadow foreign secretary added: “I’m going to be carrying on doing my job exactly as before, which is speaking for Labour on foreign policy, supporting Jeremy Corbyn and campaigning really hard to get Labour elected at the next general election.”
The painfully long reshuffle, which started on Monday, entered its most dramatic stage late on Tuesday night with the sacking of the shadow Europe minister, Pat McFadden, for disloyalty. The removal of McFadden prompted Stephen Doughty, a fellow member of the shadow foreign affairs team, to resign live on air on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme.
Doughty was joined by Kevan Jones, who resigned as shadow defence minister after Corbyn moved his boss Maria Eagle, who favours renewing Britain’s nuclear deterrent, from the post of shadow defence secretary to shadow culture secretary. Eagle was replaced by Emily Thornberry, who has questioned the need to replace Trident. Jonathan Reynolds also resigned as shadow transport minister.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, Corbyn’s closest ally at Westminster, dismissed the three former shadow ministers as members of a “small rightwing clique”. McDonnell told the BBC: “We have had a few junior members resign and, of course, that is their right. But they do all come from a sort of narrow rightwing clique within the Labour party.”
But Corbyn’s continuing battle to assert his authority was highlighted when it emerged that Rosie Winterton, the Labour chief whip, threatened to resign when the leadership suggested moving senior members of her team. Two sources told the Guardian that there was an attempt to remove her deputies, Alan Campbell and Mark Tami, making room for allies of the leader at the heart of the whips’ office. The sources said Winterton was prepared to resign herself rather than let that happen. Spokesmen for both Winterton and Corbyn declined to comment on that discussion.
The failure to remove the two senior whips followed Corbyn’s failure to achieve what exasperated allies of the Labour leader said had been his principal ambition in the reshuffle: the removal of Hilary Benn.
“The iron entered Jeremy’s soul when he sat next to Hilary during his speech endorsing military action in Syria,” one senior shadow cabinet minister told the Guardian. “But in the end Jeremy the nice guy prevailed and he backed down.”
Benn’s friends said that in two lengthy meetings, over Monday and Tuesday, Corbyn never raised the possibility that the shadow foreign secretary should leave his post. The friends agreed the shadow foreign secretary had agreed to work more closely over the presentation of policy. But they were adamant that Benn had not agreed to any curbs. “The idea that there are curbs on Hilary’s activities and that he signed up to them as a prerequisite for serving are completely untrue,” a friend of Benn said.
Benn signalled this in more diplomatic terms when he said he had not been muzzled. His remarks contradicted an overnight briefing that there would be no repeat of the Syrian airstrikes debate, in which the shadow foreign secretary and the Labour leader voted on opposing sides in the Commons. If, for example, David Cameron sought to extend the airstrikes against Isis to Libya then Benn and Corbyn would agree a common position, sources said. A three-line whip would then be imposed on Labour MPs, avoiding a repeat of the free vote.
In their second, crucial meeting, late on Tuesday night, Benn fought to save the frontbench career of McFadden. When it became clear he could not, he fought to get a strong pro-European appointed to the shadow Europe post. Benn was pleased with the appointment of Pat Glass.
McFadden was told at 11pm on Tuesday night by the chief whip that he was to be sacked over comments he had made in the Commons on terrorism. “I said what?” an astonished McFadden asked Winterton.
In a telephone call Corbyn told McFadden that he had attacked him with a question in the Commons during the prime minister’s statement on the Paris attacks. This was a reference to McFadden’s remarks on 17 November about the dangers of explaining terrorist attacks as a reaction against western intervention.
The leadership regarded the remarks as an attempt to challenge Corbyn’s authority after the Guardian reported that McFadden had Corbyn in mind when he spoke of the dangers of “infantilising the terrorists”. McFadden told the Guardian he had been sacked for a genuine disagreement on substance and not for disloyalty. He said: “This is not a matter of disloyalty, it is a difference of substance. It is that that led Mr Corbyn to believe I should not serve on the frontbench.”
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