What does Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet reshuffle mean for UK foreign policy?

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain's opposition Labour party, used a cabinet reshuffle Wednesday to clamp down on internal dissent, leading many to question the impact this may have on British policy, not least with regard to its nuclear deterrent.

Hannah McKay/Reuters
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in north London, January 5, 2016.

The leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, completed a reshuffle of his cabinet early Wednesday.

In what was widely expected to be a "revenge reshuffle," the outcome appeared less dramatic – described by one disappointed Mr. Corbyn ally as "the night of the blunt knives."

But the changes, while few, could have significant implications for the Labour Party, and for British politics.

This is a pivotal time for Labour, which during last May’s general election was defeated far more soundly than expected. That electoral disaster prompted the resignation of leader Ed Miliband, and a subsequent flurry of leadership bids followed by the shock emergence of the far-left Corbyn as the winner, sweeping almost 60 percent of the votes.

Since then, Labour has been writhing in an effort to rediscover its identity and purpose, as its members have split into two camps – those who fear electoral obliteration in the hands of such a left-leaning leader, and those who relish what they see as a return to the party's roots.

This reshuffle was seen as an opportunity for Corbyn to reassert his authority, to restore a sense of unity among his battered ranks.

Corbyn fired the shadow Europe minister, Pat McFadden, in retaliation for his words to Prime Minister David Cameron during parliamentary debate, following the Paris attacks in November, a statement regarded as a veiled attack on Corbyn’s relative ambivalence:

"May I ask the Prime Minister to reject the view that sees terrorist acts as always being a response or a reaction to what we in the West do? Does he agree that such an approach risks infantilising the terrorists and treating them like children, when the truth is that they are adults who are entirely responsible for what they do?"

Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn kept his position, but only after reportedly agreeing to refrain from publicly challenging Corbyn’s foreign policy in future. Mr. Benn made a widely lauded speech in November’s parliamentary debate in support of military action against Islamic State in Syria.

Perhaps the most significant change was the removal of Maria Eagle, a supporter of the UK’s nuclear weapons program, Trident, as shadow Defence Minister – replaced by Emily Thornberry, a critic of Trident.

Far from quickly losing his leadership position, as many had expected, Corbyn is consolidating power. More specifically, he is unifying the party’s foreign policy and solidifying what many regard as an anti-West, anticapitalist stance.

While this shakeup has ramifications for Labour itself – stripping the party of its electability in the eyes of many – it may also reverberate through the corridors of Westminster, home of Britain’s Parliament.

A unified force at the heart of British politics situated farther left than any Labour party in decades could have big implications for the future of British policy, particularly with British planes flying sorties over Syria and Iraq and MP's preparing to debate new antiterror measures and the renewal of Trident.

Peter Mandelson, a Labour Party grandee and critic of Corbyn who served in previous British governments, told Newsweek: "The issues involved go to the heart of Britain’s national security. The Trident system is an integral part of NATO’s ability to deter nuclear armed adversaries and Corbyn’s chief policy priority is to dismantle it."

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