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Joff Wild on Jeremy Corbyn and an impending constitutional crisis

August 29th, 2016

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As leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition Jeremy Corbyn receives a salary of close to £138,000 per annum. On top of this, of course, he gets expenses and a generous pension package. Last week, he told us that he does not consider himself wealthy. Some may wonder whether a politician so out of touch with reality can ever be taken seriously, but not, it seems, a majority of Labour members; for on 24th September it is almost certainly going to be announced that they have re-elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader of their party.

What we have learned over the last few weeks is that once the leadership contest which Corbyn is fighting with Owen Smith has been put to bed, the acrimony that exists across Labour is not going to go away. There will still be 150,000 (perhaps as many as 200,000) Labour members who believe that Corbyn is not up to the job, not to mention more than 1,000 Labour councillors, the mayor of London and the leader of Scottish Labour (Carwyn Jones has remained neutral, though it is pretty clear what he thinks too). Crucially, 80% or so of Labour MPs will continue to feel the same. That takes us back to the salary.

Jeremy Corbyn gets an enhanced pay package because the post he holds is an official, constitutional one. He is not just the leader of the second largest party in the Commons, but is also meant to head a shadow front bench able to provide close scrutiny of the government and to offer an alternative to it. In other words, the British Constitution mandates Jeremy Corbyn to ensure that Theresa May and her ministers account in full detail for the decisions that they take and to ensure in-depth critiques of those decisions. Because of his lack of support among members of the parliamentary Labour party, it is clear that Jeremy Corbyn cannot do this now and will not be able to do it after 24th September.

As this is the case, we are in completely uncharted waters. Our country’s constitution is not codified; instead, it is a mixture of statute, court decision and convention. It has not ever had to deal with a situation in which the leader of the opposition does not command the support of his party’s MPs but continues to insist on leading them. In the past, parliamentary leaders who have lost the confidence of their colleagues have always resigned – and our constitutional settlement is based on the assumption that this will always be so.

As we know, though, Corbyn does things differently. Because he does not believe in the primacy of parliament, his view is that as long as he enjoys the backing of a majority of Labour members he should keep his job. But while that may be fine for him and for his supporters, there is a wider picture to consider. Our constitution demands a properly functioning opposition – one in which a full shadow cabinet is backed up by a full team of junior shadow ministers and parliamentary private secretaries. For as long as Jeremy Corbyn leads Labour, this will not happen.

Because Corbyn will not resign, despite not being able to do the job he is paid to do, it seems to me that at some stage the Speaker of the House is going to have to get involved. He will be very reluctant to do so and, no doubt, he will be rebuffed by the Corbyn team, but John Bercow surely has a responsibility to ensure that the House of Commons performs the role it is constitutionally obliged to perform. And that means having an effective opposition. Bercow has the power to insist on or even to impose a solution; sadly, it may turn out he will have to use it.  

Whatever he does decide to do, Bercow is likely to be hung out to dry. The current situation brings the Commons into disrepute, while perceived interference in the internal affairs of the Labour party will undoubtedly lead to accusations of bias or worse. But a leader with minority support among his party’s MPs, presiding over a dysfunctional shadow cabinet in which individuals undertake multiple roles with little or no support, is not sustainable. Something has to give.

It all means Corbyn’s implacable refusal to accept that he needs a parliamentary mandate is going to cause ructions that go way beyond the Labour party.  That would be quite a feather in the cap of a hard left MP who has always wanted to shake up the British political establishment.

Joff Wild

Joff Wild posts on Political Betting as SouthamObserver and tweets at SpaJw