A lot of politics is theatre. There’s the story-telling, of course. You have to recite other people’s words with freshness and sincerity but also learn how to improvise when it all starts to go wrong. And woe betide the politician who isn’t comfortable in costume (Ed Miliband in jeans, Cameron in ordinary wellies). But whether you succeed in politics depends a great deal on what genre of play you end up acting in – and that isn’t always in your control.
Take Jeremy Corbyn (no, really, take him – badum-tsshh). He started the week as the star of his very own vengeance fable. He ended it a pantomime villain.
It is not that the reshuffle took too long, though 55 hours does seem excessive when only two senior jobs are changing hands. It’s not even that the main supposed victim of Corbyn’s cull survived unscathed, though Hilary Benn has rather made a fool of his Leader. The really farcical thing about Labour’s first week back has been that even friends and would-be allies of Corbyn had no idea how to help. “He wants rid of Benn” shouted aides, to a chorus of “oh no he doesn’t” from yet other aides. This was a troupe of players falling out over the script, having apparently forgotten all about the audience.
But let’s not allow the pure silliness and sheer incompetence distract us from the facts. Corbyn ends the week having successfully removed two thorns in his side – Dugher and McFadden – and with three others having helpfully and unexpectedly reshuffled themselves out of the way too. The only tears Jeremy’s shedding at the loss of Jones, Doughty and Reynolds are of the crocodile variety. These are the gains of the week. And they are not meaningless – five enemies have been removed, which gives Corbyn the opportunity to exercise patronage and makes mass resignations in May that little less likely to be fatal. What’s more, the Labour Leadership finally has a true ideological ally in the vital defence brief. The battle over party policy on Trident – esoteric as this may seem – is utterly central to Corbyn’s sense of mission. Emily Thornberry is his neighbour and his friend. And unlike Maria Eagle, she is comfortable with the idea of scrapping our independent nuclear deterrent.
Against these gains there are losses to be stacked. Hilary Benn was supposed to be killed off this week. The fact that he refused to be axed off-stage, and that so many of his colleagues threatened mutiny if he were sacked (with eight Shadow Cabinet members pledging to walk out with him), saved the Shadow Foreign Secretary. His survival is frustrating for Jeremy Corbyn – and, in particular, for his closest advisers – but the problem is more personal than it is political. Whilst there may be fresh battles to be had on foreign policy, the Syria vote has been and gone. What’s more, only sixty or so Labour MPs voted with Benn and against Corbyn on action – much less than the hundred plus numbers the rebels hoped. He is an irritant but not an urgent problem; a constant reminder of the limits of Corbyn’s power.
The bad feeling caused by firing Dugher and McFadden will also make party management more difficult. It is true that the former Shadow Culture and Europe Ministers were less than fulsome in their loyalty to the Leader. But their dismissal smacked of vindictiveness and it was an unforced error to allow Pat McFadden to claim he had been fired for the thought-crime of unequivocally condemning terrorism. Expect neither man to let the matter drop anytime soon.
Of course, whilst we have all been watching carry-on Corbyn another show has been playing out, to thin audiences. The Conservative Party has quietly abandoned collective responsibility on Europe, faced the soggy consequences of failure to invest in environmental infrastructure and set about rewriting the rules of British politics to (some would say) their own advantage. Where are the boos, hisses and wails from an outraged audience? Luckily for the Government, no-one is paying a great deal of attention. This is, after all, panto season. And boy are Labour delivering the goods.