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First week back: Labour reshuffle and EU referendum

08 January 2016

Richard Messingham reflects on the reshuffle within the Labour party and the divisive issue of the EU referendum.


It has been a quiet week for parliament, with the House of Commons returning from recess on Tuesday and the House of Lords coming back next Monday. Labour frontbench's reshuffle, however, has dominated the political headlines.

While rumours that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was considering making changes in his team have been in the news over the Christmas period, the reshuffle only occurred when parliament returned to Westminster. His shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was at risk to lose his brief for 'insubordination' over airstrikes in Syria. Corbyn, however, has decided to retain him, probably because of the impact that this could have on public opinion and among Labour MPs.

Pat McFadden, shadow Europe minister, and Michael Dugher, shadow culture secretary, have both been sacked for "serious disloyalty", which had prompted other shadow ministers - Stephen Doughty, Kevan Jones, and Jonathan Reynolds - to resign in solidarity.

Former practising solicitor, Maria Eagle, a supporter of Trident renewal, has been replaced by unilateralist and former practising barrister Emily Thornberry as shadow defence secretary. The promotion of Thornberry ensures continuity with the leadership's view on defence policy and may guarantee a more cohesive cabinet. Eagle has instead been appointed shadow culture secretary to replace Dugher. Former solicitor Jo Stevens MP has been appointed to the shadow justice team as shadow prisons minister.

Labour's reshuffle has overshadowed news of David Cameron's decision to give cabinet ministers freedom to campaign to leave the EU. Although the prime minister categorically ruled against this happening only a few months ago, the tensions within his own party, both backbenchers and ministers, has forced him to accept what for many was an inevitable outcome. With the leadership of the party wanting to campaign to remain in the EU, particularly if Cameron is partially successful in his negotiation, the EU referendum has become a thorny, divisive issue. 

Whatever the result of the referendum, it is unlikely that the Cabinet will remain in its current format as disloyalty to the prime minister will not be rewarded in a post-referendum reshuffle. A victory of the leave campaign will almost certainly have a significant impact on the political careers at the top level. While the prime minister may be forced to resign earlier that he has announced, George Osborne is likely to seriously reconsider his leadership bid paving the way to more right-leaning candidates.   

Monday 4 January

Parliament was not sitting. The House of Lords will return on Monday 11 January.

Tuesday 5 January

Nothing to report

Wednesday 6 January

Prime minister's questions

Conservative MP Stewart Jackson attacked new shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry for accepting a donation from law firm Leigh Day, which he accused of "ambulance-chasing" practices and targeting of war veterans. He also used this point to call for a British Bill of Rights to replace existing human rights legislation.

In his response, prime minister David Cameron said that he believed Leigh Day had "some questions to answer" over its practices. 

Read the questions in full

Thursday 7 January

Nothing to report

Friday 8 January

Nothing to report

Tags: politics | Westminster weekly update | European Union

About the author

Richard Messingham is head of public affairs at the Law Society. He and his team are responsible for supporting the president and CEO to manage the Society's relationships with Parliamentarians, Ministers, civil servants and other major stakeholders of direct relevance to solicitors.
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