Jeremy Corbyn is expected to carry out his much-awaited and much-briefed ‘revenge reshuffle’ this week. Given he will have to face a shadow cabinet meeting on Tuesday, it would make more sense for the Labour leader to get on with moving and sacking today so that he faces the shadow cabinet he wants, rather than the one he wants to get rid of.
But will the reshuffle really give Corbyn what he wants? This morning’s Times carries an intriguing report that Hilary Benn and Andy Burnham have offered to swap jobs so that Corbyn doesn’t have such an obvious split in foreign policy in his top team, while also avoiding party fury by sacking Benn. I understand from my own sources that there is definitely appetite from both men for this swap, but also that there is sympathy from the leadership for this too.
Allowing the job swap would be a climbdown for the leadership, but there is a suspicion in the party that the harshest briefings on the reshuffle had little to do with Corbyn, and came while he was incommunicado in Malta over Christmas. This briefing to the Independent, in which Benn’s sacking was mooted along with a purge of Blairite ‘serial losers’, is widely believed to have come from Corbyn’s director of communications, Seumas Milne. Party figures suggest that the briefing seems to have calmed down since the leader returned from his holiday. Corbyn and his staff know that they cannot look weak by allowing those who appear disloyal to continue in place, but they also cannot look ludicrous by sacking everyone with experience and replacing them with chums who agree with the Labour leader.
But regardless of the behaviour of those around him, Corbyn as leader is entitled to have the people he thinks are loyal to him in top jobs. The mistake he made early on was to suggest in meetings with those moderate members of the Shadow Cabinet who he offered jobs to that it was fine for them to disagree and that he was very much in favour of a ‘broad church’ style of leading. This was a mistake, and it was clear from the furious look on the Labour leader’s face after Benn’s speech in the Syria debate that he had realised that he isn’t actually that in favour of broad churches.
Not sacking Benn after all the briefing might be a climbdown, but even if he did go ahead with a really wide-ranging clearout, the leader probably wouldn’t face any particularly effective wrath from his party. What, other than threatening to be very cross, could those moderates who oppose both Corbyn and his plans to sack Hilary Benn and Maria Eagle, really do to hurt the leader? Precious little, is the answer, given Corbyn doesn’t care that much for the opinion of the parliamentary party.