The Labour leader’s apparent decision to back Kate Hoey as the chair of the newly-created Commons Brexit select committee is an error, argues Joff Wild
Jeremy Corbyn just cannot help himself. After supposedly heartfelt pleas for unity during the Labour party leadership contest, he has followed up on his controversial dismissal of former chief whip Rosie Winterton by seemingly opposing the election of Hillary Benn as chair of the newly created House of Common Brexit select committee. But not only that, it looks as if he is throwing his weight behind Kate Hoey to take the job instead. The result of the vote, in which all MPs take part, is expected later today
Of course, in classic Corbyn style, the man himself was nowhere to be seen near the nomination papers; but the fact that prominent supporters of his such as Clive Lewis, Paul Flynn and Dennis Skinner publicly backed Hoey’s election gave the game away. They would not have done so without a nod and a wink from the man in charge.
For a long time, Benn had been the only candidate to take the Brexit committee job – which has been allocated to Labour – and he was backed by a large majority of the party’s MPs, as well as the wider party. This was not only to ensure a forensic examination of government ministers’ Brexit plans, but also to form a strong partnership with Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer, who has already been receiving rave reviews after less than two weeks in the job.
Hoey’s last minute candidacy has thrown all this into doubt. It will also infuriate a large number of MPs and many, many ordinary party members. Putting to one side the fact that a Brexit committee chaired by a Leave supporter is likely to give ministers more leeway than one which is chaired by a Remainer, they will recall that Hoey not only actively advocated a Leave vote, but that she stood shoulder to shoulder with Nigel Farage after the publication of UKIP’s highly controversial Breaking Point poster. While the former is forgivable, the latter is not – Hoey’s own constituency party unanimously voted to censure her over it back in September.
Corbyn, of course, has history with Benn, while his commitment to the UK’s EU membership has always been suspect. It is, therefore, no surprise that he may have doubts about the former shadow foreign secretary in such a prominent and potentially powerful position. That he has expressed them in the way he has may also indicate that he is having second thoughts about the Starmer appointment too; we shall see about that.
But in giving the green light to Hoey, Corbyn has made a mistake – just as he did when he attended an SWP event the weekend before last, having said he wouldn’t, and provoked outrage among his own supporters. Corbyn could have given Benn a free run and proved his commitment to making peace with the PLP, he could even have backed a less controversial alternative; but, as we know, that’s not Jeremy’s style. He thinks he is untouchable and acts accordingly – the nomination of Hoey was another opportunity to provoke which was too good to refuse.
A while back on PB I wrote a piece in which I argued that it would be a mistake to see Corbyn backers as one homogenous mass. Instead, I said, there are many types. It is understandable that those outside the Labour party do not see this, but it looks to me like Jeremy Corbyn – a man who has never knowingly left his comfort zone in 40 years – doesn’t realise it either.
To Corbyn , feted by his close circle and adored at mass rallies, it seems as if the entire left-of-centre world outside the PLP is on his side. But in reality that isn’t the case. Instead, a lot of his support is conditional and depends on him delivering results, if not today then certainly within the next two years. Those results include improved opinion poll ratings, successful election campaigns and a more unified party.
Corbyn’s worshippers will not mind whatever he does, but sacking Winterton, hanging out with the SWP and backing someone who became an apologist for UKIP during the referendum campaign are potentially serious missteps. If Labour fails to make headway as the Tories move ever rightwards and their private arguments become more public, Jeremy being Jeremy will cease to be a positive and will instead become an increasingly bigger negative. When that happens, Corbyn will discover that today’s powerful supporters – inside the trade union movement, in particular – will start to look for alternatives. Should things not change, I expect that to happen in 2018.
Joff Wild posts on Political Betting as Southam Observer. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpaJW