A Tale of Two Ministers
Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick and former Shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey were mired in separate controversies last week. Jenrick had allegedly accepted ‘cash for favours’, approving a property development of Conservative Party donor and former Daily Star & Express editor, Richard Desmond, following a £12,000 donation to the party. The development approval has since been reversed. Long-Bailey had retweeted an article in The Independent that purportedly contained an anti-Semitic trope. By the end of the week, however, Jenrick remained in his post and Long-Bailey had been sacked.
Wrongdoing in both cases is highly contested, especially with both cases relying upon inference to substantiate their allegations. Various interrelated considerations, however, including perceptions of wrongdoing, historical context and party leadership, ultimately suggest that despite such contestation, both Jenrick and Long-Bailey’s consequences were ultimately inevitable.
Jenrick’s approval of the Westferry Property Development despite Tower Hamlets Council rejecting the proposals provoked outrage upon knowledge of Desmond’s involvement, both in his suspicious donation and also his discussions with Jenrick at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner last November. In denying bias, Jenrick, admitted his own actions created the perception of bias, furthered by documents last week detailing Jenrick requested department officials expedited Desmond’s development’s approval before Tower Hamlets Council imposed a Community Infrastructure Levy costing Desmond an extra £40m, already on top of Desmond’s £106m saving from falling 14% short of the required social housing. Such actions suggest bias by Jenrick making his position untenable, an allegation challenged by Jenrick’s defenders who point out his unwillingness to engage with Desmond in discussions owing to fears of bias and his transparency in discussions with the UK’s most senior civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, actions that ensured Jenrick did not breach the Ministerial Code.
The government ultimately sided with Jenrick, resulting in his non-sacking being inevitable. Jenrick’s wrongdoing was denied through Sedwill’s ruling that he had presented a satisfactory account of events, thus preventing Individual Ministerial Responsibility being invoked to mandate his resignation and challenging opposition calls for Jenrick’s resignation as purely partisan. Boris Johnson’s remark that Jenrick’s “case was closed” following Sedwill’s investigation further highlights this inevitability. Moreover, retaining Jenrick provides Johnson key political benefits with his sacking risking increased emphasis upon government failures during the Coronavirus pandemic, and also avoided difficult questions, most prominently why Johnson would have made an exception for his special adviser Dominic Cummings and not a cabinet minister. History also favours Jenrick with precedent dictating relative inaction for similar cases, for example, Labour’s 1997 manifesto pledged to prohibit tobacco advertising, a pledge reneged when Formula One was granted an exemption, occurring coincidentally after then-Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to Labour in January 1997. Therefore, whilst questions remain over Jenrick’s conduct and his position risks becoming increasingly vulnerable come the next reshuffle, the government have inevitably committed to not sacking Jenrick, an inevitability from their acquitting Jenrick and neither the party leadership nor precedent mandating Jenrick’s removal.
Long-Bailey’s resignation, however, was far more inevitable. Maxine Peake’s retweeted article alleged that the methods used by the US police to kill George Floyd were “learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.” Israel vehemently denied using this tactic, something utilised by other police forces who interact closely with the US (e.g. Germany), and consequently, Peake was inferred to have spread the anti-Semitic trope of Jewish responsibility for global events. Retweeting Peake’s article did not denote Long-Bailey as anti-Semitic, whilst Long-Bailey clarified that her retweet was owed to Peake’s comments calling for the Conservative government’s removal and that she did not support all of Peake’s comments. Nonetheless, in calling Peake an “absolute diamond”, and refusing to remove the article when instructed, Long-Bailey allegedly demonstrated what New Statesman Political Editor Stephen Bush referred to as blindness towards or an unwillingness to confront anti-Semitism, wrongdoing that would justify her removal. Long-Bailey’s supporters have critiqued this argument, suggesting that she sought to start debate on international policing standards (acknowledged on Twitter by Long-Bailey herself), and that Peake’s statement represented a legitimate critique on Israeli policing rather than anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, Starmer’s assessment that Peake’s statement was anti-Semitic, owing primarily to the questionable justification for Israel’s singling out, meant Long-Bailey’s failure to take down the article illustrated wrongdoing and thus made her sacking inevitable.
Starmer’s commitment to eradicating anti-semitism from Labour following his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived failure, which led to many Jewish voters deserting Labour, also made Long-Bailey’s sacking being inevitable. For Starmer, therefore, action was essential. Long-Bailey’s sacking was applauded by the Jewish community, including by Marie van der Zyl, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Whilst Long-Bailey’s sacking did not totally restore the Jewish community’s confidence in Labour, Starmer justified it by highlighting how it marked a clear departure from Labour’s recent past and affirmed its commitment to tackling anti-Semitism, allowing the Jewish community to gradually regain faith in the party. Nonetheless, this has risked conflict with the hard-left Socialist Campaign Group, MPs loyal to Long-Bailey and the former leadership, who regarded Long-Bailey’s sacking as an overreaction and a concerted attempt to eradicate ‘Corbynism’ from the party. The future of ‘Corbynism’ will remain hotly contested throughout Starmer’s leadership, and although Starmer has embraced many aspects, he has clearly distanced himself from others, poorly dealing with anti-Semitism being one. Consequently, Long-Bailey’s perceived wrongdoing, combined with Starmer’s decisive stance against anti-Semitism made sacking Long-Bailey inevitable.
This tale of two ministers is ultimately the tale of two contrasting outcomes of inferred wrongdoing, outcomes informed as much by the wrongdoing itself as by the historical context and the incentives of the party’s leaderships on these cases. The correctness of these decisions continues to be debated and in Long-Bailey’s case, risks perpetuating fierce partisan divisions. Considering the cases and their context, however, both decisions taken last week were the inevitable ones.
Long-Bailey: Wikimedia Commons / Rwendland
Jenrick: Image: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street