David Cameron may have left Number 10 nearly four weeks ago but he’s still somehow making the headlines. With nothing left to lose, his ‘resignation honours’ list began to be gradually leaked to the press early last week, with key names from both the ‘remain’ campaign in the EU referendum and aides from Cameron’s time in office featuring on the lengthy list. So lengthy, in fact, it seems that disgraced former Director of Communications, Andy Coulson, was the only person who missed out. Thank goodness, even in these times of austerity, we still have the resources to bestow an OBE upon Samantha Cameron’s stylist. We are, after all, all in this together.
What was really striking about how this story broke was the absence of Labour leader tearing this list apart (as you might expect). On Thursday, when Theresa May published the final honours list it suddenly became apparent why this was the case. Jeremy Corbyn had nominated a sole name for a peerage: Shami Chakrabarti, the former Director of Liberty.
In ordinary circumstances, this would be a totally logical and understandable move. Chakrabarti has been a passionate and effective human rights campaigner for well over a decade – the House of Lords could surely do with her expertise and we shouldn’t be turning our noses up at the chance to increase the diversity of the members of the Lords.
The issue here is that the timing of this peerage is toxic for Labour and comes with the distinct smell of a whitewash. Chakrabarti was recently appointed Chair of the “independent” inquiry into antisemitism in the Labour Party. Following the decision to give her a peerage, particularly after having said he would not recommend people for honours, Jeremy Corbyn has led Labour into another PR disaster. The independence of the antisemitism inquiry is now under intense scrutiny and the Labour leadership can now not condemn Cameron’s crony-filled list, as to do so will encourage this story to be played upon further in the Commons.
Perhaps Corbyn’s media strategy will appear at some stage, but 11 months into his premiership, there are no signs to indicate this will be the case.
For us, it begs the question as to what the official opposition is if it cannot conduct a week of operations without scoring an own goal. Corbyn’s persistent problem, which the Tories have touched upon and his own members repeatedly scream at him is that whatever legitimate claim he has to be Labour leader it is undermined by a total inability to act constitutionally responsibly.
Cameron’s resignation honours list is a parting piece of cake for detractors that would label him as an upper crust old Etonian detached wholly from the issues of the day and, whatever his motivations, still essentially part of the old boys’ network. Whether or not the narrative is true seems secondary to the fact that, like any good jester, Cameron created most of the laughter at him not on purpose but by accident.
What the two men have in common is that they both entered the leadership race to ‘clean up politics’, to end the ‘Punch and Judy’ spectacle of PMQs. Cameron’s realisation over the last ten years is that it is impossible not to have ferocious and occasionally derogatory debates; all you can hope for is to leave with the applause of your colleagues so history notes some kind of decency to the whole thing.
Corbyn is stalwartly refusing to accept that the requirements of the job require a killer instinct if not to serve himself then to serve his country. This is where he errs. Principled, decent and soft-spoken, he refuses to concede that it is the latter point which is what is pushing his parliamentary colleagues away while, at the same time, having the ironic effect of drawing members to him precisely because he’s playing the card of a rhetorical, single issue politician using none of the required tactics that make Leaders of the Opposition effective.
This is the key dilemma, seldom wrestled with: Corbyn wants to be Labour leader, appeals to Labour members and is happy to play election contest after election contest. This is directly at odds with his responsibilities as Leader of the Opposition and the need to hold the Government to account.
As news breaks that Theresa May is planning to reintroduce Grammar schools to England and Wales, calls for Corbyn to resign will surely turn to a cacophony of rage if he fails to mount a good resistance (which, given the issue, seems a remarkable opportunity). It is his to squander.