Barry Gardiner’s comments were arguably worse than Owen Smith’s, but he kept his job. Why?
Two shadow cabinet ministers. One, Owen Smith, called for a referendum on the final Brexit deal – admittedly in a break with Labour policy – and was swiftly sacked by leader Jeremy Corbyn. This in spite of the fact that polls show such a referendum to be popular with Labour members and that Smith’s shadow cabinet colleague Diane Abbott had called for something very similar just a couple of months previously.
The second shadow cabinet minister, Barry Gardiner, played down the risks of failing to resolve the Irish border issue post-Brexit, calling it a “shibboleth”, and rubbished a report as “nonsense on stilts”, only to have to apologise for the “misunderstanding” once it emerged a recording existed.
It then transpired that at the same Brussels event the shadow cabinet minister had said one of the party’s key policies – its pledge to secure the exact same benefits as the single market after Brexit – “always has been bollocks and it remains it”. Despite also being bound by the same cabinet responsibility, Corbyn dismissed calls for him to be sacked, saying: “It’s quite clear he does support our strategy of holding the government to account on the tests that have been put forward.”
Pontypridd MP Smith must be, to use the local vernacular, tamping*.
Gardiner is right, of course. The idea that a nation can leave the single market yet retain its benefits is bollocks, whether it comes from a free-trading Brexiteer or a diehard Corbynista, which – as Gardiner rightly says – is why it should never have been Labour policy in the first place. It’s up there with Corbyn’s paradoxical ‘jobs-first Brexit’ in terms of unattainable promises.
Accusing his parliamentary colleague of “eccentric self-indulgence”, Labour MP and short-lived shadow chancellor Chris Leslie said Gardiner’s “increasingly maverick behaviour must be embarrassing for his frontbench colleagues”.
Except it’s not. Because where Smith and Gardiner differ is that the latter offers Corbyn what he prizes above all else: unswerving public loyalty and preparedness to demonstrate it in a TV and radio studio.
Smith was the shadow cabinet minister who quit and unsuccessfully challenged Corbyn for the leadership before returning to the fold (whether through ambition or a mawkish loyalty to the party). Gardiner, meanwhile, has successfully built himself into a sort of shadow minister for the Today programme, always on hand to defend his leader come what may, using Trumpian tricks to try and delegitimise the hated mainstream media – hence dismissing yesterday’s reports as “nonsense on stilts” until it emerged his comments were on tape.
It’s why this Diet Comical Ali is so beloved among the Corbynista rank and file, with the Badass Baz and Constant Gardiner memes doing the rounds every time he pops up on the air to accuse Robert Peston, Laura Kuenssberg and – who knows? – probably Kiss FM of doing the Tories’ bidding for them.
Not a born Momentumite – he served under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as minister for squirrels or something – Gardiner saw the way the Labour wind was blowing and has carved out a niche for himself as Corbyn’s media bruiser and will remain so regardless of what he might say behind closed doors in Brussels once he thinks he’s among friends.
Corbyn demands public loyalty. That’s why Gardiner will be on Question Time tomorrow night as the representative of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, and Smith could be compèring a church hall quiz night in Llantrisant. As I say, tamping.