On Wednesday evening, the members of the constituency Labour party of Islington North were in the middle of their annual general meeting at a community hall when an unexpected guest walked in – their MP of 32 years, and the Labour leader of four days, Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn had already experienced quite a day – having spent the morning trying and failing to kill off a media storm over his decision not to sing the national anthem the day before, he had made a paradigm-busting appearance at PMQs, quietly asking David Cameron a series of questions he had crowdsourced from his supporters, before giving the first major TV interviews of what he called the “incredibly complicated and busy” days since he had been elected.
But rather than a well-deserved early night, it was to constituency business – the election of new local officers – and then a glass of red wine at the local pub, The Swimmer at the Grafton (Corbyn is not quite, as is often reported, teetotal), where he discussed with friends and supporters their views on his shadow cabinet appointments so far.
He seemed “absolutely shattered, exhausted”, according to one party insider who had a long chat with him in the pub. “At the moment, it’s all a bit of a shock to his system. He has realised his new office isn’t just about policies, but it’s a huge managerial task.” Corbyn talked about the many rallies of his campaign, “and we were thinking, Jeremy, go home and get some sleep”, added the insider.
A drink with friends must have felt like a welcome respite, all the same, after a torrid few days at the heart of one of the most extraordinary political hurricanes to strike British politics in decades.
From the moment the result of the leadership election was announced, to huge cheers, at a special conference in central London on Saturday, Corbyn’s feet have barely touched the ground, as he has grappled with the huge step-up in responsibility and scrutiny that his new position brings. At times, as close colleagues readily admit, his first week has not been the dream start a new political leader might have hoped for.
He has certainly delivered on his promise to do things differently. His first act as leader was to slip out of a side door of Westminster Central Hall, missing the waiting media – a risky calculation, though only if you care about the conventional political playbook - and head to join his supporters in the pub. He addressed marchers at the refugee solidarity rally in central London, then went to 1 Brewer’s Green, the Labour party HQ, to meet with the party’s general secretary Iain McNicol, before finally joining about 50 close allies at a restaurant near the old GLC building on the Southbank at around 8.30pm.
It was a lively if slightly strange affair, according to one of those present, with campaign colleagues exuberant at the result, but in many cases unclear whether they still had a job now the party machine had assumed management of Team Corbyn.
That confusion was already beginning to show the following morning. Andrew Marr had been expecting Corbyn on his agenda-setting BBC1 politics show; the leader chose instead to attend a low-key event in his constituency. It had been a very conscious decision, Corbyn said the following day, “to give a message about how we intend to do things”, but the lack of anyone in his team to explain his reasoning led to confusion and an unhelpful narrative that he was snubbing the BBC – not aided when another promised interview on Today on Monday was cancelled.
Corbyn makes little effort to disguise his distaste for the media – he made the point three times in his acceptance speech – but no politician, however different they aspire to be, will thrive by ignoring it completely. With the experienced Labour deputy communications chief Patrick Hennessy having jumped ship to join Sadiq Khan’s mayoral campaign, and Carmel Nolan, Corbyn’s well-regarded media director during the campaign, having boarded a train home to north-west England unclear whether she still had a job, the press operation around the new leader was in disarray, unable to rebut the critical headlines which many papers were already itching to write.
But the damaging stories were not all stirred up by hostile newspapers. Corbyn had been insistent throughout the campaign that his team should on no account appear presumptuous that they would win. As a result, according to one close ally, there had been some discussions, led by longtime parliamentary ally John McDonnell, about what structure a future Corbyn shadow cabinet might take, but little detailed planning around either how to cast the different roles or how to manage the first few days in leadership.
It meant that the new leader did not begin sounding out colleagues for shadow ministerial appointments until Sunday afternoon. When he shut himself away with chief whip Rosie Winterton and his campaign director-turned-chief of staff Simon Fletcher, no one noticed that their (at times) pleading calls to demanding or reluctant parliamentary colleagues were being made in earshot of reporters.
The three biggest ministerial departments – all given to men – were announced before the remainder had been filled, leading to an immediate social media backlash and the overheard instruction from Fletcher that they “do a Mandelson” and give Angela Eagle, already announced as shadow business secretary, an additional, higher-profile role.
It allowed the genuinely positive news of the first majority-female shadow cabinet to be drowned out in a controversy over sexism, while the hastily offered explanation that newly minted shadow ministries such as “young people and voter registration” were as central to Corbyn’s operation as the shadow Treasury was regarded by many as flimsy at best.
Monday opened with a rash of headlines screaming that Corbyn wanted to abolish the army – a flimsy non-story that his team could have rebutted much more forcefully had they been answering their phones the day before. But the new leader went down well with party staff at Brewer’s Green (the champagne and cupcakes that had been laid on may have helped), giving a witty and warm speech.
Then it was back to the Commons for his first appearance on the Labour frontbench during a debate on the trade union bill – flanked by Eagle, shadow international development secretary Diane Abbott, and McDonnell, his controversial choice as shadow chancellor – and a bumpy first meeting with his fellow Labour MPs. He was greeted respectfully but not entirely warmly by a group who, in large part, had wanted anyone but him to win. For a man who had spent the summer being cheered by hundreds of supporters at campaign events all over the country, it was a rude awakening.
At the same time, inconsistencies in policy were beginning to emerge between the new leader and his newly appointed cabinet, particularly on the principle of the welfare cap and the party’s position on the EU referendum.
Another day brought another challenge. By the time Corbyn arrived in Brighton early on Tuesday afternoon to address the TUC, he was already being targeted over that morning’s service in commemoration of the Battle of Britain, at which he had chosen not to sing the national anthem.
As his team pointed out, Corbyn’s republicanism is not a surprise, and for all the clamour from those on the right, there were plenty who believed he had nothing to apologise for or explain. Again, however, in the frantic scramble to keep up with their many competing demands on his team’s time, a consistent rebuttal line was not formulated – Corbyn initially said his choice to stand silently had been perfectly respectful; the party later announced he would sing the anthem in future; then McDonnell suggested later in the week Corbyn had not sung because he had been overcome by the moving event.
It was all a bit of a mess, and concerns were mounting among allies that the week was lurching from one crisis to another, according to a source close to the Corbyn inner circle. Their man wanted to change the rules of politics, but kept finding himself clobbered by those still playing by the old ones.
In that context, the importance of his quiet, almost shockingly different performance at PMQs the next day cannot be underestimated. If Corbyn felt he was struggling to make his arguments heard, choosing to articulate them in a softly spoken voice, using the words of ordinary voters, was undeniably potent.
As a political technique, it was not 100% effective and the new leader has discussed with his team how he can use it more pointedly to land meaningful blows on Cameron. But as an eye-catching example of the new politics Corbyn says he can offer – and a much-needed political win – it was certainly timely.
On Thursday, the Times resurrected a photograph from the 1970s of Corbyn with Abbott and the “old” revelation that they had had a relationship. The piece prompted a feverish followup the next day in the Daily Mail, with the headline: “Reds in the bed: Jeremy, Diane and a naked romp in a Cotswolds field.” Alongside was a supporting piece offering context from the Mail’s point of view, headlined: “The party unfaithful: Labour’s list of leftie lotharios.”
The end of the week brought a break from the limelight for the leader, and an opportunity, at last, to get some more of his ducks in a row. Corbyn appointed Kevin Slocombe, formerly of the Communication Workers Union, as his interim press spokesman, and Boris Johnson’s Olympic legacy adviser, Neale Coleman, also a former senior adviser to Ken Livingstone, as his much-needed director of policy and rebuttal. McDonnell appeared on BBC1’s Question Time (Corbyn himself having declined) and gave what his team feel was a solid, quietly effective performance.
And on Friday, at last, the leader was able to reveal his full frontbench team. Nerves are beginning to settle at the heart of the operation, say allies, and the machinery that any party leader needs behind them is finally cranking into life. The focus, they say, will now shift away from the role of Westminster party management, and towards getting his message out to his supporters and beyond.
This article was written by Esther Addley and Lisa O'Carroll, for theguardian.com on Friday 18th September 2015 19.32 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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