How Cameron and Corbyn keep their parties together

Cabinet-making is how politics is constructed. So it matters how leaders manage big differences of opinion in their teams

Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It
Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It

I have a terrible confession to make. I have just watched The Thick of It for the first time. Several things became clear to me. Why there is a spoof Twitter account called Peter Mannion MP. The origin of the phrase “as connected as a kibbutz”. Other things were revelations. One was that Malcolm Tucker is not the all-conquering monster of legend: the character is often portrayed as insecure, out of the loop and scheming to get back in.

Its main value, however, is that it prepared me for this week’s real-life farce: Jeremy Corbyn’s first reshuffle. I had thought the Labour leader was playing a clever game by pretending to be innocent. Someone close to him let it be known that he was thinking of making changes to his Shadow Cabinet. This meant weeks of speculation about the futures of Hilary Benn, the shadow Foreign Secretary, Maria Eagle, the shadow Defence Secretary, and Rosie Winterton, the Chief Whip.

As with Corbyn’s delay in announcing his MPs would have a free vote on extending air strikes against Isis to Syria, the uncertainty put pressure on MPs. It wound up Corbyn supporters in the grassroots and gave a lot of MPs time to reflect that, as the case for air strikes was weak, it would damage neither their career prospects nor their consciences to vote against.

The speculation about the reshuffle, similarly, allowed the message to sink in. But the way Corbyn has managed this has been canny. He has presented his as a new open, collegiate way of doing politics, while Labour MPs scurry to realign themselves behind him. The new politics is just like the old politics, only slower. A free vote didn’t mean a free vote. Honest, straight-talking politics doesn’t mean it is safe for MPs to say what they think.

None of which should come as a surprise. The reason we have political parties, and whipped votes, is that this is how you make democracy work. You organise people around broad values and present voters with a choice. In the Commons, this means it makes no sense to have a party leader who disagrees with senior colleagues on fundamental questions, especially those that are the senior colleague’s responsibility.

It makes good sense, therefore, for Corbyn to move Benn and Maria Eagle, because they support Trident and he doesn’t. But it is complicated. Labour Party policy is to renew the UK’s nuclear weapons programme, until of course it isn’t – in which case why not move them after this autumn’s Labour conference changes the policy? That would make sense: new policy, new spokespeople. The other complication is that Tom Watson, the Labour deputy leader, is also a Trident supporter and he cannot be sacked because he was directly elected by Labour members.

So it was always going to be messy. Even so, the presentational disaster – “omnishambles” is the Thick of It word – of the past two days has been quite exceptional. Days and nights went by with people rumoured to be in or out and in the morning nothing had happened, just as in one of the Thick of It specials.

Of course, you could argue that none of this matters. Normal people don’t know who Michael Dugher is and don’t care if journalists are making jokes about the reshuffle lasting longer than Britney Spears’s 55-hour marriage. But it matters for two reasons. One is that what journalists think is important because even in the digital age it is mainly through journalists that voters know politicians. The other is that cabinet-making is how politics is constructed. It is, as I say, how democracy is organised. So it matters how leaders manage big differences of opinion in their teams.

Which brings me to my exam question of the day: “Compare and contrast David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn’s management of their front-bench teams.” Because in the middle of Corbyn’s reshuffle, the Prime Minister announced that he would allow ministers to campaign against the EU in the referendum after his renegotiation was complete.

In part, this reflects the similarity of the positions in which the leaders find themselves: having to bridge fundamental divisions in their parties. Neither had much choice. Neither could enforce a single party line all the time. Cameron starts with a united policy but will have to accept that his party will split. Corbyn starts with a split and is working towards unity.

Hence part of the difference in their approaches. Cameron has strung his anti-EU MPs along for much longer than most of them assumed. Even now, they will not be allowed to oppose membership of the EU until after his negotiation is complete. Then there will be the quickest possible dash to the referendum, with his recommendation to remain.

Extraordinarily, even as he puffs on a pipe and puts on a Gannex raincoat, Cameron insists that this is first time any government has sought to renegotiate its membership. He is repeating the Harold Wilson formula in every detail: adopting a formal government position in favour of staying in, but allowing ministers to “take a different position” and to continue to serve.

Everyone knows that this is as much a free vote as Corbyn’s free vote on air strikes in Syria. Hilary Benn’s father, who campaigned to leave the Common Market, was demoted from Industry to Energy five days after the 1975 referendum. Cameron has played his colleagues as slyly as Wilson did his. Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid and Michael Gove will, I suspect, decide in the end that Cameron’s new deal is good enough for them. If Theresa May and Iain Duncan Smith campaign to leave, they know it will probably be the beginning of the end of their ministerial careers.

The big difference between Cameron and Corbyn, however, is that the Prime Minister has managed the divisions on his side without it looking like a disastrous shambles from The Thick of It.

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