Henry II was a complicated chap. His anger at the disloyal behaviour of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett, was all the more painful because of the close friendship they had once shared. But that was before Henry decided it would be a wheeze to make Thomas the most senior churchman in the kingdom. Did he get Beckett’s gratitude? Did he buggery.
And as we all know, there then followed history’s biggest “Who? Me?” claim of injured innocence. A group of knights, aware of how much a thorn in their king’s side Beckett had become, took matters into their own hands. After Beckett’s murder, Henry seems to have been genuinely grief-stricken by his former friend’s fate, but has never, in the intervening millennium, totally convinced historians that his hands were as clean as he claimed at the time.
The art of subtly encouraging your followers to carry out your bidding unasked has become one of politics’ darkest arts. Jeremy Corbyn genuinely seems to be uninterested in having his critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party deselected as Labour candidates; he’s said so repeatedly, so it must be true.
And there are so many turbulent priests in Committee Room 14 on Monday nights that it would take an army to do the dirty deed, not just a few loyal knights.
But an army is exactly what Corbyn has.
Momentum is a group of volunteers within the Labour Party, formed to try to keep the energy and excitement of Corbyn’s election campaign going. I imagine they hold pyjama parties at each other’s houses and swap magazines with Jez on the cover and talk wistfully about how dreamy he is. I don’t know for sure, you understand.
The only important thing you need to know about Momentum is that it was formed as a purely defensive measure. As soon as it became apparent that Corbyn was going to win the party’s leadership, the wagons had to be circled. He would need a Praetorian Guard to protect the leader at all costs from the attacks he would surely endure from his many opponents within the party.
And there is nowhere rebellious MPs feel more vulnerable than in their back yards. On the parliamentary estate they reign supreme; no-one there wants to grab your seat because everyone already has one of their own. No, it’s back in the constituency at weekends where MPs have to meet, greet and basically bend over backwards to be nice to everyone – particularly local party members, every one of whom will have a say in whether or not they become their party’s candidate at the next general election.
Labour rules regarding reselection are, inevitably, complex and opaque. Basically, unless you’ve really cocked up in some egregious and public way, locally affiliated trade unions – which always have many more branches affiliated to the local party than the local party itself does – will bail you out, sometimes against the will of the members.
But when there’s a radial redrawing of constituency boundaries in the offing, the normal security of that arrangement disappears. New seats will be created, in many cases, from bits of old existing seats, forcing sitting MPs to fight each other for the nomination in the new seat. Think musical chairs with knuckle dusters.
It was the Bennites in the 1980s whose demand for mandatory reselection of MPs in each parliament caused the schism with the SDP. And it has been an article of faith with the Bennite wing – that’s the wing that now runs the party, for those of you who haven’t been paying attention – ever since. No surprise then that Jon Lansman, a left wing veteran of the civil war of 30 years ago, is running Momentum.
So mainstream Labour MPs are understandably nervous. Vast influxes of new members over the summer have unnerved rather than delighted them.
At the PLP this week, Ann Coffey, the veteran Labour MP for Stockport, was one of those pointing out that in the event of a Paris-style terrorist attack in Britain, a swift bullet to the brain might be a more appropriate response than Corbyn’s suggestion of an invitation to the gunmen to discuss their grievances over a nice herbal brew. I paraphrase, of course.
But Coffey’s comments were seen as grotesquely disloyal to the leader, particularly by her own local Momentum group which Tweeted a demand that she leave the party. She is one of many receiving such threats. Stella Creasy, one of the best campaigners in the Commons and who impressed many with her deputy leadership campaign in the summer is, unbelievably, also in the hard left’s firing line. Serves her right for… well, for whatever the hard left in Walthamstow think she’s guilty of.
It’s not difficult to see where all this is going. Corbyn’s under pressure, what with not being able to command the loyalty of the vast majority of MPs and also not having any leadership abilities and stuff. So his minions want to protect him in any way they can. What better way than to threaten disloyal MPs with deselection? Because if a local party contest comes down to a battle between a Corbynite loyalist and another MP who would prefer, for example, not to spout nonsense on foreign affairs, all those new recruits, with their “Troops Out” badges and Yasser Arafat scarves are going to go with the Corbynite.
And as all this unfolds, Corbyn will shake his head sorrowfully and insist that none of this is doing. Perhaps he’ll prostrate himself, like King Henry did, at the scene of the crime and mourn ostentatiously to show this was not of his doing.
Good luck with that. Because 1000 years after the event, Henry’s still trying to shrug off the blame.
This article was originally published by the Daily Telegraph.