Jeremy Corbyn's Reshuffle: Hilary Benn Agrees 'No New Conditions', But Corbyn Asserts Authority On Defence And Foreign Policy

06/01/2016 09:04 | Updated 06 January 2016

Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘midnight reshuffle’ was only finally resolved after he had a second, secret meeting with Hilary Benn late on Tuesday night, HuffPost UK has learned.

And although the Labour leader moved to stamp his personal authority - and mandate - on his Shadow Cabinet, there is still dispute over whether the Shadow Foreign Secretary agreed to any new conditions to keep his role.

Senior party sources have revealed that the main reason for the marathon, 30-hour negotiations over the personnel changes was a combination of unresolved discussions with Mr Benn and the Government’s decision to hold four Commons statements.

It is understood that the sacking of Benn ally and Shadow Europe Minister Pat McFadden was first considered last month, though “his fate was sealed” by his ‘disloyal’ appearances on the media since Sunday evening.

Corbyn allies described the reshuffle as “small but significant”, with its main changes the two sackings of dissenters Michael Dugher and McFadden, the replacement of Maria Eagle with a more anti-Trident Emily Thornberry and a new “agreement” with Benn over not publicly challenging Corbyn on foreign policy.

But one friend of Benn told HuffPost UK: “Given the hysterical reporting about Hilary in recent days it was surprising that at no point did Jeremy ever suggest that he didn't want Hilary to continue as Shadow Foreign Secretary. Nor did Hilary agree to any new conditions”.

Not only did Benn survive, but he also insisted that McFadden’s replacement was another strong Europhile and got his way with the promotion of Pat Glass, who has long campaigned for Britain’s close working within the EU.

Benn met Corbyn in his office for over an hour on Monday night. Party sources say that the Labour leader set out a range of issues including the likely sacking of McFadden and a new ‘understanding’ that Benn could never again publicly disagree with Corbyn’s foreign policy stance.

The agreement not to repeat ‘the Syria vote situation’, where a frontbencher openly contradicted his leader, as well as a wider duty to allow Corbyn overall control of foreign policy direction, were “fundamental” to the reshuffle, a source said.

The key strategic move was to acknowledge Corbyn’s decision to take personal control of foreign policy given it was one of his main campaign issues during the Labour leadership race, as well as replacing Eagle with someone more anti-Trident. ‘We got an improved relationship [with Benn] and a change of personnel’ a source said.

Michael Dugher's sacking was also aimed at making clear the difference between "open debate" and "abuse" directed at the leadership. And although Corbyn rebelled 500 times against the Labour whip, his allies point out those rebellions were all as a backbencher, not a frontbencher.

Senior sources stressed that Corbyn’s move to assert his authority was not about personal aggrandisement but about making the Shadow Cabinet respect his democratic mandate from the overwhelming majority of party members who voted for him. And on Syria in particular, the Corbyn camp repeat that in the end a majority of the Shadow Cabinet and PLP voted against bombing in line with Corbyn's (and most party members') stance..

Yet it is understood that the Monday night meeting ended with an agreement to sleep on the matter before any final decisions were taken. A further meeting was agreed but it had to be repeatedly postponed because the Government held four different Commons statements - from 3.30pm to 8.30pm - that pinned Corbyn and Benn to the frontbench.

Benn’s second, crucial meeting with Corbyn was held late last night, unnoticed by reporters gathered near the Labour leader’s office. As an old hand, the Shadow Foreign Secretary decided to repeat his usual habit of approaching Corbyn’s office in Norman Shaw buildings by a back route - walking from his office near the chamber, outside the front of the Commons and then back in to the Parliamentary estate at Derby Gate. In a game of cat-and-mouse with the media, he succeeded in not being spotted on Tuesday. With the clock ticking, the leader’s team did not want the already-disrupted reshuffle to run into ‘Day Three’.

What Benn finally agreed is in dispute, with his friends saying no ‘new conditions’ were agreed to as a prerequesite for his staying on in office. However, with all sides keen to focus on unity, Benn will not be going out of his way to pick a fight with the leadership.

Following claims from those close to Corbyn that Benn had accepted a six-point plan on future conduct, allies of the Shadow Foreign Secretary denied he had 'been put on mute'. And Benn told reporters on his doorstep this morning that he had not been 'muzzled'.

Central to Benn and Corbyn’s future relations is the issue of further votes on matters of conscience like Syria. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell confirmed this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Benn “has recognised the mandate that Jeremy Corbyn has from our members and he will recognise his leadership on this issue” of foreign policy.

Crucially, McDonnell said: “If there’s a disagreement and people want to express their view on a free vote they will do it from the backbenches.” If Benn wanted to do so on such issues “he will not be doing it as a spokesperson for the Parliamentary Labour party, he’ll be doing it from the backbenches.”

Yet this would not be a “new” condition. Benn himself told a Shadow Cabinet meeting before Syria that he wanted to speak ‘from the backbenches’ during the debate. It was Corbyn who is believed to have insisted that he speak from the frontbench when the debate was closed. Whipping decisions on free votes - allowing ministers to keep their job while speaking their mind and making clear it is their personal rather than party position - remain ultimately with the party leader and Shadow Chief Whip.

Upto 11 shadow ministers were believed to be ready to quit if he was fired, though Benn had been uncomfortable with the idea of himself triggering a mass walkout. Although some around Corbyn wanted a more hardline approach, the leader's natural affability and conciliatory nature won the day on the future of his Shadow Foreign Secretary.

Some MPs are already suggesting that far from underlining Corbyn's authority, the reshuffle and Benn's remaining in post, emphasised the limits of his remit over among shadow ministers. "Meet the new Shadow cabinet, it's virtually the same as the old Shadow cabinet," one source said.

It is understood that McFadden’s name was “on the list” of ministers to be moved three weeks ago following concerns that he had directly challenged Corbyn in two key moments: once during the Parliamentary debate on the Paris attacks, and once when he Tweeted in November that former Defence Secretary John Reid on the Today programme “Reminded me of when we were a champions league team”.

In the Commons debate, McFadden had said those who blamed the West for the terror attacks risked 'infantilising the terrorists'. He told Today today that ‘this was not a quip..this was a difference of substance...terrorists are entirely responsible for their own actions…he [Corbyn] clearly interpreted that as an attack on him."

McFadden appeared to be not just expressing anger at a Stop the War blogpost, which was swiftly removed, that argued the West had 'reaped the whirlwind'. During one heated meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party at the same time, Corbyn had pleaded with MPs 'I didn't write it!' [the blog]. At another PLP meeting, Corbyn also askedL “What is it about us, what is it about our society that makes people radicalised?” Some Labour MPs heckled “It’s not our society to blame!”

But on McFadden's future, HuffPost has been told “his fate was sealed” by a string of media interviews he gave in recent days, starting with his Radio 4 Westminster Hour remarks warning the leadership against a ‘punishment’ purge of Hilary Benn for speaking his mind on a free vote on Syria. In his final interview in post - before being fired at 11pm - he again underlined the long way back for Labour to power.

As for McFadden, Benn's tweet in support of him last night was seen by the leadership as the usual courtesy to a colleague. But in an echo of the dissent over Dugher, shadow foreign minister Stephen Doughty - who voted for bombing in Syria - tweeted this about the Paris attacks and 'infantilism' of terrorists: "I agree with everything @patmcfaddenmp said in these comments. Shocked if this why he's been sacked."

McFadden only took the role as Europe minister because he wanted to ensure the party did not veer off into the anti-EU position some on the Left had wanted. John McDonnell was seen as sceptical and Corbyn as agnostic on the issue of the EU In-Out referendum, with both wanting better workers’ rights in a reformed EU.

Others close to Corbyn wanted a much harder line making support for Cameron’s Yes vote conditional on stronger rights. But in one of his early successes under Corbyn, Benn managed to get the new leader to commit to Labour backing for an In vote.

Benn wanted to ensure that McFadden’s replacement was as pro-Europe as he was. The promotion of shadow education minister Pat Glass ensured he got someone even more Europhile than McFadden: she is co-chair of the pro-EU group ‘Labour Yes’.

However, on the issue of defence policy - where Benn cannot speak for the party - Corbyn has asserted his control comprehensively. That's why the whole reshuffle is being referred to as a 'score draw' by some in the party - though not the leadership.

Eagle’s removal follows her own decision during party conference to question the leader’s ability to be a ‘potential Prime Minister’ if he refused to say he’d use nuclear weapons. Her offence was compounded when she appeared on the Andrew Marr show and backed Chief of Defence Staff Gen Sir Nick Houghton for questioning Corbyn’s fitness to govern given his nuclear stance.

New Shadow Defence Secretary Emily Thornberry is more anti-Trident and alongside Ken Livingstone will now conduct the party review of the policy. And, as Corbyn made clear to HuffPost UK before Christmas, another email ‘plebiscite’ will take place to canvass the views of party members on Trident: a move that ensures a fresh clash with many in the Shadow Cabinet this year. The reshuffle is over, but the battle over policy certainly isn’t.

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