If the Holborn and St Pancras MP is not the first to leave the shadow cabinet, his new Brexit role makes him a decent outside bet in the Labour leadership stakes, writes Joff Wild
With Tory ministers briefing against each other as they fall out over Brexit and the Trump campaign seemingly on the verge of implosion in the US, the recent Corbyn Labour shadow cabinet reshuffle has, understandably, not grabbed many of the headlines. But it is noteworthy, nonetheless.
Emboldened by his recent convincing re-election, Corbyn – who yesterday was speaking at an event organised by the Socialist Workers Party, much to the chagrin of some of his media supporters – has put together the front bench team he believes will take the battle to the Tories and defeat them. So, alongside the IRA-apologist shadow Chancellor and the white van man-trashing shadow foreign secretary – who both kept their briefs – in came a Mao-apologist as shadow home secretary and an anti-Trident campaigner in the shadow defence role; the latter replacing Clive Lewis, who had the temerity to suggest supporting party policy at the Labour conference.
Some may say that these appointments reflect the views of a man who is totally incapable of leaving his comfort zone and who is utterly removed from the realities of British politics, but I could not possibly comment. All I would say is that they are the choices Corbyn has made; they were not forced on him, they are entirely his responsibility. He has the people he wants sitting by his side. That this has precipitated another falling out with the parliamentary party and a possible mass exodus from the whips office is by the by – Jeremy has his team and an extra NEC seat, and that is what matters.
In the great scheme of things, the make-up of an opposition frontbench that no-one seriously believes has a chance of ever replacing the government is no great shakes; and that may explain why – as yet – there do not seem to be any betting opportunities on who may be first to leave the shadow cabinet. What’s more, given Corbyn’s lack of support-base in the PLP his room for manoeuvre in terms of hiring and firing is severely limited: if he were to sack a shadow frontbencher, it’s not clear there would be anyone available to fill the gap. But if an exit book is to be put together, there is a stand-out candidate for the favourite’s slot.
It would be fair to say that the one Corbyn appointment last week which attracted praise from across the Labour party was Keir Starmer’s as the shadow Brexit minister. As a QC and a former director of public prosecutions, the MP for Holborn and St Pancras (the constituency in which I was born and raised) is well-qualified to offer forensic examination of the government’s plans for leaving the European Union.
In taking Brexit away from Emily Thornberry, Corbyn showed an unexpected and welcome ability to put the good of the country first. Alongside Hillary Benn, who is expected to chair the Commons Brexit select committee, Starmer could form a formidable team to provide a voice for the many millions of Remain voters who are currently watching, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as debate inside the Conservative party begins to boil down to just how hard Brexit should be.
However, I used the word “could” advisedly; for there are plenty of reasons to believe that somewhere down the line Corbyn or McDonnell will do something that flies directly in the face of what Starmer is seeking to achieve. As anyone who followed the leadership election will know, a string of ex-shadow cabinet ministers told the same, depressing story about how they were undermined by the leader’s office or by the shadow Chancellor; about how policy was made without consultation, about a total lack of communication and about the complete dysfunctionality of the decision-making process. That is not going to change – Corbyn and McDonnell are what they are.
What’s more, neither the Labour leader nor the shadow Chancellor give any impression of being remotely interested in the UK remaining part of the single market; while for many years they were avowed Euro-sceptics who saw the EU as a right-wing, business-friendly institution that stood in the way of the implementation of socialist policies at the national level. While claiming to have changed their minds about EU membership, their low-key presences during the referendum campaign told a different story, as did their undermining of Labour’s Remain strategy. And who can forget that just hours after the referendum result became known Corbyn was live on national television calling for Article 50 to be invoked immediately?
Now, it could be that Corbyn and McDonnell are right about the EU, but that is not the point here. Instead, it is that their views are very different to Starmer’s and their history shows that they have a persistent habit of developing policy and making pronouncements without consulting colleagues. I suggest that probably sooner rather than later this is bound to happen on Brexit. If it does, Starmer is strong enough in his constituency party – where is very well liked – to have the confidence to walk away. He is not someone who need fear reselection; while, a few adjustments aside, Holborn & St Pancras is unaffected by the boundary review.
With Brexit so high profile, views so opposed and passions around it so intense, I don’t see how a confrontation – accidental or otherwise – between the Labour leadership and the shadow Brexit minister can be avoided; so once the odds appear, my money will be on Starmer to be the first to leave the shadow cabinet.
But there is an alternative scenario. Corbyn and McDonnell could shock me and pursue a collegiate approach. They could give Keir Starmer the space and the authority he will require to develop a strong, credible Labour line. Who knows, Starmer may find enough Tories agreeing with him to force the government into making concessions to get its plans through the Commons. If that happens, with Brexit set to dominate all political discourse for the foreseeable future, we will be seeing a lot of the media-friendly Starmer over the coming few years. That will raise his profile considerably – both inside Labour and in the country generally. Should he enjoy a level of success, that will do him no harm at all.
I believe that the next Labour leader will be a woman, but with Stan James currently offering 20-1 I will be putting a few speculative quid on Starmer, too – I might just win; that is, if I have not already collected my winnings on his shadow cabinet departure.