Keir Starmer had no control over whether to end the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn after only 19 days. Yet it was up to him, as party leader, whether or not to restore the party whip to the former leader. This choice represented another big moment for Starmer. He knew he had to do something before PMQs today, lest he hand Boris Johnson a PR coup. Starmer’s decision not to give Corbyn back the whip is surely the right one. But for Starmer, here’s the bad news: this drama is far from over.
Starmer is now in a position where refusing to give the whip back to his predecessor as Labour leader will always be deeply within his political interests. It is almost impossible to imagine a situation in which allowing Corbyn back into the fold won’t be seen as Starmer backtracking on his ‘under new management’ mantra, on anti-Semitism and on making the Labour party electable again.
This means he’s got a big problem. How to find a way to justify never allowing Corbyn to sit as a Labour MP ever again?
He can keep this matter under constant review, of course, hoping Corbyn keeps doing stupid things that continually justify the whip being suspended. This might just work given the proclivities of the last Labour leader.
However, it is entirely possible that Corbyn behaves himself. This would make things much more difficult for Starmer. If this were to happen, Starmer does have plenty of things he can point to in order to justify not restoring the whip to Corbyn. Even if Dear Jeremy were to issue a gushing apology, the EHRC report and its findings are arguably more than enough on their own to justify Starmer’s decision.
But whether or not Starmer is in the right, his position will quickly become unenviable. If Starmer fears igniting a full-on civil war by refusing to readmit Corbyn, then, well: too late – it’s already started. It arguably began the moment he won the leadership contest.
Jeremy Corbyn and the left of Labour will continue to hurt Starmer’s efforts to remake the image of the Labour party in as many ways as they are permitted. If he wants to become prime minister, Starmer needs to put as much clear blue water between himself and the hard left of the party as he can. He needs to let it be known that nothing like what happened to Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership will ever be allowed to happen again. His ability to win the next general election rests almost entirely on this point. And that means there is no way back for Corbyn.
It is easy to say that this is a Westminster bubble story, but that’s to misread it entirely. Yes, most people will not be following the ins and outs of who does and does not have the Labour whip on any particular day. But they will wonder how much the stain of Corbyn’s time as leader has been wiped away by the new leadership. One thing that definitely extends far outside the SW1 is the view that Jeremy Corbyn is someone who should never have been allowed near the levers of power.
Starmer needs to continue making an example of Corbyn and invite any of the MPs from the hard left to leave if they don’t like it. There is no other path left for Starmer. And while Starmer’s wish to unite the party is an honourable one, the sooner he realises it is also impossible, the better.
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