The “Who? Who?” Shadow Front Bench Designed for Party Unity

When Edward Stanley-Smith, Lord Derby, formed his first ministry in February 1852, it was the first Conservative administration since Robert Peel had split the Tories over the repeal of the Corn Laws. Although politicians did not speak like that in those days, it might be said that Derby’s protectionist ministry represented a party going back to its roots. The Corn Laws produced the biggest split a political party had ever seen - and is still a reference point for political historians: William Gladstone, a Peelite President of the Board of Trade, went on to join the Whigs in 1859.

So bereft were the Tories of substantial men that, when the elderly and near-deaf Duke of Wellington heard the names of the new ministers as they were announced in the House of Lords, he shouted out loudly “Who? Who?”

Derby’s short-lived ministry, which lasted until December 1852, became known as the “Who? Who?” Ministry.

With the exodus of Blairites and Brownites, there is an element of this to Jeremy Corbyn’s first appointments. Household names are few and far between.

Hilary Benn’s confirmation as Shadow Foreign Secretary is the biggest boon  to CorbynThis is not true of them all. Hilary Benn’s confirmation as Shadow Foreign Secretary is perhaps the biggest boon so far to Corbyn. Benn in name only, he is a pro-European, said to be one of the most decent men in politics and will be a reassuring presence for those such as Chuka Umunna who refused to serve because of doubts about Corbyn’s position on EU renegotiation. Corbyn’s election makes a Labour split over Europe far more likely. Benn covering foreign affairs reduces this risk slightly. Andy Burnham’s appointment is less unexpected but also a sign of Corbyn’s weakness - and strength. His overwhelming mandate meant that he could have ignored Burnham altogether. His lack of media-friendly, experienced, big-hitters meant could not. I suspect the former leadership contender would have preferred the treasury brief or foreign affairs portfolio: it is a sign of strength that he has not been offered either. However Burnham was caught on camera denouncing the prospect of Corbyn’s victory. Expect these words to return to haunt both men.

Most tellingly, it is the Shadow Chancellorship which has caused the most problems. With his lack of credibility on the economy, he would have been wise to have made this his first appointment and made it a big deal. That he did not or could not is worrying. Yvette Cooper, a former Treasury minister, would have been the obvious choice but she returned to the backbenches. His appointment of John McDonnell is the worst of his big three appointments. McDonnell has no frontbench and little economic experience, beyond serving as finance chief at City Hall under Ken Livingstone in the 1980s. He lacks Ed Balls’ economic ballast. He is a average media performer, has little parliamentary support and will struggle against George Osborne, who has been Chancellor for five years and is a canny gangster. His alternative, better-known Angela Eagle, would at least given the party some gender balance in a crucial position. She instead goes to BIS with the sinecure of Shadow First Secretary of State. The three join the clever fixer Tom Watson, who was elected deputy on Saturday. He will be crucial both as a bridge to the leadership for moderates but also as someone who, with strong trade union links, knows his ways around the party's Byzantine structures. Already he is talked of as the man who might save the party should Corbyn implode. For all the talk of a 50:50 balance, the five most important positions in the party are disappointingly men. It is a massive, massive step backwards.

it is the Shadow Chancellorship which has caused the most problems

The appointments of Heidi Alexander, Lucy Powell, Owen Smith, John Trickett, Seema Malhotra at health, education, communities, work and pensions, and treasury respectively, as far as the public are concerned, fall into the “Who? Who?” category; Blairite Gloria De Piero and Diane Abbott less so. Abbott’s appointment at international development is unsurprising. Her last stint on the frontbench at health was not a success; it is a sign of who has taken over. Lisa Nandy (Who? Who?), who now shadows Energy, is tipped for great things. Maria Eagle assumes the Defence portfolio, turned down by Chris Bryant because of policy differences. Her predecessor Vernon Coaker, another moderate appointment, takes over Ulster at a crucial time. Most interesting is the reappointment of Blair chum Lord Falconer at Justice. A clever man, it might have been better to have made a Commons appointment. His opposite, Michael Gove, is one of the wiliest operators in government.

This is not a strong frontbench. Nor was it seamlessly constructed. Corbyn has few allies around his Shadow Cabinet table: he has not stuffed his team with allies at the expense of party unity. They will struggle to make an impression against a Tory team that has been allowed time to master its briefs. It also remains to be seen whether he will be able to fill all the frontbench positions beyond the Shadow Cabinet. This is especially important with the Tories ramming a lot of their agenda through while Labour is at its weakest. Now is the time for savvy parliamentary fighters. Not all of this is Corbyn’s fault: the resignations he faced were unprecedented, although not so great as to deliver a fatal blow or anything near it. I suspect that moderates are playing a fine game in allowing Corbyn to build a balanced team but keeping the bigger names - Cooper, Umunna, Hunt, Kendall, Jarvis - clean in case he fails.

The “Who? Who?” Opposition. If it sounds a bit gloomy, remember this: few of Derby’s ministry went on to distinguish themselves. Except the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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