I think it’s safe to say that very few individuals in the Labour Party will be happy with the outcome of Jeremy Corbyn’s latest reshuffle. The Corbynites will be disappointed that Hilary Benn remained in his post, and will feel that Maria Eagle should have returned to the backbenches rather than remaining in the Shadow Cabinet. On the flip side, the anti-Corbyn lobby has been quick to rally behind Michael Dugher and Pat McFadden following their dismissals; Benn rather swiftly tweeting that:
Corbyn seemingly intended for this reshuffle to be a comprehensive purge of dissenting voices, but was forced to climb down and pick on the easy targets. If Corbyn was consistent, surely sacking Dugher for “disloyalty” would have meant dismissal for Benn, following his impassioned speech on Syria in the House of Commons.
As it stands, Corbyn has shown himself to be a weak leader. While it is no secret that the relationship between the Parliamentary Labour Party and Corbyn is tense, this reshuffle demonstrates that Corbyn has few allies within the PLP. Indeed, although sympathetic party members want the Shadow Cabinet to speak with a single, radical voice on key issues, it is increasingly clear that the Labour leader cannot deliver a united frontbench.
What we witnessed instead was a partial reshuffle designed to cohere a clear message on a single issue – Trident. By promoting Emily Thornberry to Shadow Defence Secretary, Corbyn demonstrated that Labour will at least have a united voice when speaking about the nuclear deterrent. The Labour leadership will spin this as an important first step towards a united, radical party, although it is unlikely that Corbyn supporters will be convinced that the reshuffle was an unadulterated success.
In addition, as soon as Corbyn realised he was in no position to purge dissent entirely, he chose instead to make martyrs out of Benn’s allies within the Shadow Cabinet. First, he sacked Dugher, who lashed out by declaring: “…what we've seen in recent weeks is a number of good hardworking loyal members of the shadow cabinet being systematically trashed, in terms of their reputations, in their newspapers by people in the employment of Jeremy Corbyn”. Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson was among the first to praise the outgoing Culture Secretary, saying that "Michael Dugher is a rare politician – a talented working-class MP who hasn't lost his strong Yorkshire roots.” The willingness of prominent Labour MPs to rally around sacked frontbenchers evidences Corbyn's isolation. Given the levels of antipathy towards Corbyn on the backbenches, those sacked could well catalyse any potential coup against his leadership. It may well have been wiser to have retained their services.
Epitomised by an agonising reshuffle which spanned nearly two days, Corbyn’s leadership looks increasingly weak and without any long-term strategic vision. His previously divided frontbench remains only slightly less divided with the appointment of a compliant Shadow Defence Secretary. The sacked McFadden and Dugher will no doubt cause more trouble for Corbyn on the backbenches and Corbyn would do well to tread carefully. Certainly there is an increasing appetite for a coup within the PLP. This Machiavellian manoeuvring is not representative of the “kinder, gentler politics” we were promised, and perhaps it is symptomatic of Corbyn’s awareness of his alienation within the party. If he doesn’t try to save himself, he knows that few others will.