More than half a century later, the role of questioning and scrutinising the work of the government might appear to some Westminster Watchers to have been placed in abeyance.
Within the conventions of our parliamentary system, the Opposition exists to offer an alternative government. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition is often seen as a Prime Minister in waiting. Since 1937, he or she receives a statutory salary, is appointed to the Privy Council and is even entitled to a chauffeur-driven car for official business.
The formation of a Shadow Cabinet and subsequent re-shuffles, prompted by sacking, transfer, death or the appointment of fresh blood, rightly lie within the personal remit of the Leader of the Opposition. Although he (or she) will seek and receive advice from colleagues, the Leader will want to leave their personal imprint. If the Leader cannot re-organise the composition of shadow teams on the lines they had planned before election, or if they fumble the process, they either lack authority or fear creating enemies who could mobilise against them in the future.
Jeremy Corbyn’s January reshuffle was, by all accounts, a chaotic affair. It was ‘divisive and futile’ according to former shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt MP, who refused to serve on Corbyn’s front bench.
The Corbyn reshuffle broke all the rules according to William Hague, drawing on his experience of retiring a whole generation of Tory leaders when he was Leader of the Conservative Party in Opposition from 1997-2001. The first rule, for a Leader whose authority is anything short of total, is that it should come as a complete surprise. Corbyn’s ‘revenge re-shuffle’ was being planned to take place after Christmas following the Commons debate weeks before on 2 December when MPs voted in favour of military action against Islamic State militants in Syria. Corbyn voted against bombing. Hilary Benn MP gave a passionate speech in favour. Corbyn wanted to move the shadow foreign secretary but up to 10 shadow cabinet ministers threatened to resign.
The second rule, in Hague’s experience, is that if any test of strength develops between you the Leader and the subordinate, you have to win. Once you say they are moving, they have to go. You either pretend to be happy with Benn or you move him, but you don’t show unhappiness and fail to move him. In the event, Benn remains as shadow foreign secretary, but all future positions on foreign policy will be directed by Corbyn.
The third rule of a reshuffle is never to tell the world that an individual is being sacked for being disloyal or not up to the job. Shadow culture secretary, Michael Dugher MP and shadow Europe minister, Pat McFadden MP were dumped (in McFadden’s case, by ’phone), according to Labour sources, for ‘incompetence and disloyalty’.
McFadden had suggested, in the questions he asked about terrorism and national security, in the Commons statement following the Paris terrorism attacks, that terrorists should be held accountable for their crimes, which displeased the Leader. The pro-Trident shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle MP, was demoted to the culture portfolio as it turned out for having supported Labour Party policy. Three other shadow ministers resigned in protest at the changes.
When Corbyn attempted to draw a line on the ‘longest reshuffle in history’ (the drama ran to 11 days) he said in the course of an interview on the Today programme that he was in charge of a ‘strong’ and diverse shadow cabinet and the party was ‘moving on’ from the internal divisions of recent weeks.
Yet a few hours later, the shadow attorney general, Catherine McKinnell MP resigned. In her resignation letter the former solicitor, who represents Newcastle Upon Tyne North, expressed her concerns about ‘the direction and internal conflict within the Labour party’ which she feared had taken the party down an ‘increasingly negative path’.
McKinnell’s resignation opened up promotion for Karl Turner, the MP for Kingston upon Hull East, a barrister who (having worked in a solicitors firm and Wilberforce Chambers in Hull) had been solicitor general. He is working with Willy Bach in the Lords to drive Labour’s review of legal aid.
Turner’s promotion created an opportunity for former solicitor Jo Stevens, MP for Cardiff Central, who had only been elected at the general election last May, to become shadow solicitor general, which she will combine with her role as shadow prisons minister.
A reshuffle should make it easier for a party to unite in the future on an issue which it finds difficult. So the appointment, as shadow defence secretary, of Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington South and Finsbury and a former practising barrister (married to High Court judge, Sir Christopher Nugee), is perhaps significant. She had been forced to resign her role as shadow attorney general last year under Ed Miliband for tweeting a picture of a white van and St George’s flag during an election campaign visit to Rochester in a move that was interpreted as a sign of snobbery. Thornberry’s views on defence are likely to be close to those of Corbyn, in favour of Labour adopting a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, a policy which the resurgent Ken Livingstone is recommending to the party leadership.
The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (including a majority of the shadow cabinet) are not unilateralists. They may think it wrong in principle and electorally suicidal to revert to being a unilateralist party and running the risk thereby of re-running the defeats it suffered in the general elections of 1983 and 1987. Some of the parliamentary party may even think back to the 1950s when Labour spent much of the 13 years in Opposition to the Tories pulling itself apart over the nuclear deterrent.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister ’s negotiations with his EU counterparts appear to be drawing to a close, but the Cabinet is split over whether to remain in a reformed union or to come out. If Cameron believes he has got the best deal he can secure and recommends continuing membership of the EU, the signs are that he will probably have the majority of the Cabinet with him but not the majority of Tory MPs or the majority of the party in the country. He will then be in the interesting position of hoping that the opposition parties at Westminster will turn the result of the referendum in his favour. If he loses, Cameron will almost certainly feel that he has to resign as Leader. If he wins the old fault lines within the party about ‘Europe’ will not go away.
In the meantime, effective opposition by an alternative government at Westminster appears to be on hold. Democracy is weakened as a result. The Queen’s government must go on but Her Majesty does need an Opposition.