Jeremy Corbyn has had a disastrous week – but the Labour leader will not be easy to oust

Despite a week of negative headlines, there were some signs that the party is finally getting its act together

Andrew Grice
Friday 20 November 2015 18:33
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Jeremy Corbyn:  finally getting the hang of life in the fast political lane
Jeremy Corbyn: finally getting the hang of life in the fast political lane

As Jeremy Corbyn rehearsed his lines for Prime Minister’s Questions with his advisers at 10.30 am on Wednesday, his press aides stared with disbelief at their mobile phones. Via Twitter, they learned that Ken Livingstone, a close ally of Mr Corbyn, had launched a nasty personal attack on Kevan Jones, a pro-Trident Labour defence spokesman who had criticised Mr Livingstone’s appointment as co-chairman of the party’s review of defence. The left-winger, who opposes the renewal of Trident, suggested that Mr Jones, who has spoken about his battle with depression, “might need some psychiatric help.”

The session in Ed Miliband’s spacious former office overlooking the River Thames –Mr Corbyn normally prefers a much smaller one nearby—was interrupted by the controversy. But only briefly. “Ken will have to apologise,” Mr Corbyn said, asking his aides to make it happen.

The Labour leader has been accused of wavering before bowing to the inevitable on issues such as whether he would join the Privy Council; sing the national anthem or wear a red poppy. But this time, he was decisive – a sign that, after two months in the job he never expected to land, he was finally getting the hang of life in the fast political lane.

Symbolically, Mr Corbyn got no credit for his swift demand. Remarkably, it took Mr Livingstone eight hours to make his apology. Even then it was grudging and he continued his spat with Mr Jones on the airwaves. Despite that, Mr Corbyn rejected demands for him to sack Mr Livingstone from his defence role. Outnumbered at Westminster because fewer than 20 of Labour’s 232 MPs voted for him to be party leader, Mr Corbyn needs all the friends he can get as the left seizes a rare opportunity to keep hold of the party’s levers of power.

Although Corbyn allies were appalled by Mr Livingstone’s remarks about mental health, the controversy showed just how bitter the left-right battle inside Labour has become – hardly a sign of the more tolerant “new politics” Mr Corbyn wants to usher in. Chuka Umunna, the former shadow Business Secretary, has said that Labour MPs should be able to air different views “without being insulted, without being trolled, without being threatened with de-selection”.

Corbyn on Syria

The poisonous atmosphere was evident when Mr Corbyn came under repeated attack at the weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on Monday. Veteran Labour MPs said they had never seen such disrespect for a leader. Despite the terrorist attacks in Paris, Mr Corbyn had restated his opposition to British air strikes in Syria and suggested in a BBC interview that he did not favour a “shoot-to-kill” policy. Critics claimed Mr Corbyn’s words on shoot-to-kill had put the party dangerously on the wrong side of public opinion. As one moderate MP put it: “I cannot think of a more stupid and inflammatory thing to say after Paris.”

The PLP meeting was private but moderates ensured the criticism swiftly reached the media. That angered Team Corbyn but there was worse to come: the following day, during a Commons statement on the Paris attacks, several senior Labour MPs sided with David Cameron on Syria and gave Mr Corbyn a very public mauling. The criticism forced Mr Corbyn to clarify his comments on shoot-to-kill. He conceded that proportionate and necessary force could be used to keep people safe. But, as ever, the damage from his initial comments could not be undone.

As “events” abroad rather than domestic policies continued to dominate, the Labour leader soon had another headache. His opposition to UK air strikes against Isis in Syria made him hostile to giving Labour MPs a free Commons vote on the issue – which would allow Labour MPs who back British involvement to support Mr Cameron. Mr Corbyn was warned that six of his frontbench team could resign so they could vote for air strikes. The Labour leader is expected to concede a free vote. But there is no sign of him diluting the views he has consistently espoused on defence and foreign affairs for 35 years – even if his instincts get him into trouble in the media. Allies point out that party members who we well aware of such views when they gave him a huge mandate in the leadership election, and that he is not going to let down his own supporters. “He is not going to decapitate himself,” said one left-wing MP.

Some Labour MPs described as the most disastrous week for the party they could remember. “We continue our descent into hell,” one groaned. Yet some Corbyn critics spotted a silver lining. “We cannot go on like this,” one senior MP said. “I now think he will self-destruct. General incompetence, all the divisions and bad election results will persuade enough party members that we made a mistake.”

I am not sure it will be as easy to oust Mr Corbyn as some opponents imagine. Friends say they cannot imagine him stepping down before the 2020 general election, and squandering the left’s chance to control the party.

His enemies within admit they do not have an alternative leader - yet. Some Labour MPs are buying shares in Hilary Benn, who managed to have a good week as shadow Foreign Secretary despite the chaos around him. He stood up to Mr Corbyn at the stormy PLP meeting but also calmed things down. He held the line in public on Syria without being disloyal to his leader, but said pointedly he could “not speak for Jeremy” on shoot-to-kill.

Some MPs say Mr Benn lacks a constituency in the party. But others believe he could unite a very divided party and heal the wounds. “We may need to get behind someone who has been on the inside with Jeremy,” one Blairite said.

Mr Benn is a centrist who backed Andy Burnham for the leadership, but would be unlikely to plot against Mr Corbyn. His late father Tony was Mr Corbyn’s political hero and admits his dad would be smiling down on events if he could see that his former acolyte was Labour leader.

Despite a week of negative headlines, there were some signs that Labour is finally getting its act together. The party was quick off the mark after a damaging leak to the BBC of a warning by police chiefs about that the planned cuts could “reduce very significantly” Britain’s ability to handle a Paris-style attack. In a speech on Saturday Mr Corbyn will call for any cuts to frontline policing to be halted, saying that this “would be gambling with the safety of the British people” and mean the Government was “failing in its most basic duty: to protect our citizens.”

Indeed, Paris creates a headache for George Osborne as he prepares to squeeze police budgets in his spending review next Wednesday. But the Government has already promised extra money for counter-terrorism work and its new strategy on defence will be published on Monday. The Chancellor will doubtless find a way to put the spotlight back on to Labour. He usually does.

Labour already has enough work to do on the economic front but may not get much of a hearing for its anti-austerity message while much more dramatic events eclipse domestic matters. As politicians in all parties digest the new landscape a week after Paris, it seems that national rather than economic security will dominate. As this week has shown, that is bad news for a Corbyn-led Labour Party.

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