Jeremy Corbyn is a 'disaster', says Stephen Hawking

World-renowned physicist calls for Labour Leader to step down 'for the sake of the party'

Stephen Hawking died in March at the age of 76
(Image credit: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize Foundation)

Jeremy Corbyn at war with Army chief

09 November

Jeremy Corbyn is at war with Britain's most senior military officer, accusing him of flouting the constitution by suggesting he would be worried if the Labour leader ever became prime minister because of his unwillingness to deploy nuclear weapons.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The row developed on Remembrance Sunday when Corbyn followed all the conventions at the Cenotaph but was accused of not bowing deeply enough when he laid his wreath of poppies and not singing the National Anthem keenly enough.

What the general said

Just an hour before the Cenotaph service, General Sir Nicholas Houghton, chief of the defence staff, was asked on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show about Jeremy Corbyn's recent comment that he would never press the nuclear button if he were prime minister.


"The whole thing about deterrence rests on the credibility of its use," the general said. "When people say you're never going to use the deterrent, what I say is you use the deterrent every second of every minute of every day, and the purpose of the deterrent is that you don't have to use it because you successfully deter."

Houghton added: "Most of the politicians I know understand that and I think, dare I say, the responsibility of power is probably quite a sobering thing and you come to a realisation 'I understand how this thing works'."

How Corbyn reacted

"It is a matter of serious concern that the chief of the defence staff has today intervened directly in issues of political dispute," Corbyn said in a statement.

"It is essential in a democracy that the military remains political neutral at all times. By publicly taking sides in current political arguments, Sir Nicholas Houghton has clearly breached that constitutional principle."

Corbyn said that he would be writing to Defence Secretary Michael Fallon calling on him to ensure "the neutrality of the armed forces is upheld".

Speaking to The Times at a post-Cenotaph event in his Islington constituency, where he read Wilfred Owen's World War One poem, Futility, Corbyn said: "If he's [Houghton's] worried, I think he should talk to me about it. I don't think it's appropriate for serving officers to make political points."

However, The Independent says it appears likely the general will "escape sanction" by the Ministry of Defence. The paper quotes an unnamed source saying that officials were "satisfied that the comments were not inappropriate".

For and against Corbyn

Corbyn's difficult position within Labour – he wants to scrap Trident while party policy is to retain the deterrent – was exposed by his shadow defence minister's reaction to the general's remarks.

Maria Eagle, who also appeared on the Marr show, said she understood the point Houghton was making. "It's a point that I made myself when Jeremy said what he said."

But Corbyn's anger was justified according to an unlikely supporter, Crispin Blunt, Tory MP and Foreign Affairs select committee chairman, who felt the general's remarks "should have been avoided".

"As an ex-soldier and a Conservative politician I am rather loath to take the side of a left-wing leader of the Labour party against the Chief of the Defence staff," Blunt is quoted as saying by the Daily Mirror.

"But I rather fear he has a point. I think the Chief of the Defence Staff perhaps strayed into political territory, particularly on Trident.

"We're about to spend a very great deal of money renewing the Trident based deterrent… That debate should be for the realm of the politicians."

What about the Cenotaph appearance?

Well, it wasn't Michael Foot 1981 revisited, as his critics had feared. Corbyn wore a sober suit, a poppy, laid his wreath without incident, and sang along to the hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past and to God Save the Queen.

And yet some papers are asking whether he bowed deeply enough. Corbyn stood to attention, writes Robert Hardman in the Daily Mail, "but appeared to freeze rather than offer the ritual gesture of submission and salutation".

Based on comments on the Twittersphere, The Sun claims that "politicians and the public" are accusing Corbyn of "disrespecting" Britain's war dead after "he gave a slight nod of the head rather than the traditional solemn bow".

Potentially more controversial was the BBC's coverage on last night's Ten O'Clock News. Royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell informed viewers that all the party leaders joined in the singing of the National Anthem, adding – while the camera lingered on Corbyn – "some perhaps with more confidence than others".

Again, Corbyn gets some support this morning from an unlikely quarter – Margaret Thatcher's biographer and Daily Telegraph columnist Charles Moore.

As a young journalist, Moore had written about Michael Foot's infamous appearance at the Cenotaph in November 1981. "An old man with a green donkey-jacket, flapping trousers and casual shoes stood looking vaguely about him, like a bored tourist at bus-stop," Moore wrote, "and when his turn came, he laid his wreath of poppies with all the reverent dignity of a tramp bending down to inspect a cigarette end."

Today, Moore writes: "Jeremy Corbyn, I can report, did much better yesterday. Apart from remembering only halfway through to do up his suit, he comported himself appropriately. Contrary to some comment, there was nothing wrong with his slight bow as he laid his wreath. He wore unobjectionable clothes, a red poppy and a respectful expression."

There's a BUT coming … Does it mean, asks Moore, that Corbyn is not the "extremist monster" that's been painted? Or is there "a different, more worrying" explanation?

"Could it be that Mr Corbyn, or those advising him, are wilier than they have been given credit for? They may have realised that any serious Left-wing takeover of this country through the ballot-box can be achieved only by outward deference to common norms."

The sole aim of Corbyn's supporters, says Moore, is "to get their people into key places and parliamentary seats so that they can secure the power he so suddenly achieved. It is sensible, from their point of view, to make well-arranged poppies part of their window-dressing."

Jeremy Corbyn: backbench MPs throw down gauntlet

06 November

Jeremy Corbyn's hopes of moving Labour party policy sharply leftward – for which he believes he has a popular mandate – have been dealt a major blow after the election of some of his most vocal critics to chair 17 Labour backbench committees.

"Who chairs Labour backbench committees doesn't usually make the headlines," says BBC political correspondent Iain Watson, "but then there has rarely been such a gulf between a leader and many of his own MPs."

The new chairmen and women have already been dubbed the "shadow Shadow Cabinet" and the "leadership in exile", says The Independent.

The Daily Telegraph calls it a big "screw you" from Labour moderates to the party leader none of them voted for.

The Times says: "It means major battles lie ahead in almost every policy area."

What do the backbench committees do?

All Labour backbenchers belong to the Parliament Labour Party (PLP), which sometimes makes the headlines with its Monday night meetings with the party leader.

These committees are made up of PLP members and their job is to keep an eye on what the Whitehall departments are up to – and an even sharper one on what the relevant shadow ministers on Labour's front bench are saying and doing.

According to the grassroots website Labour List, the committee chairs enjoy powers they very rarely use but which, given the circumstances, they might now exploit.

Technically, for instance, they have the right to speak from the Despatch Box on behalf of backbenchers. Most importantly, Labour List says it understands the committees have the right to be consulted on policy.

"This could mean that the PLP effectively gets a veto on policy," says Labour List. "If they do have that power, and they choose to use it, this could make a huge difference to how the Labour Party works under Corbyn."

Nine of the 17 will also serve on Labour's National Policy Forum, says the BBC.

So, who are the new chairs?

All 17 positions have gone to Labour MPs who did not vote for Corbyn in the leadership election. Eleven of them voted for Liz Kendall, four for Yvette Cooper and one for Andy Burnham. The 17th – Caroline Flint – did not vote in the election but has made it clear she is more Blairite than Corbynite.

Among the 17 are:

Chris Leslie who will chair the Treasury committee. The former shadow chancellor has attacked many of Corbyn's headline proposals for the economy, including 'the people's QE' – printing money to invest in infrastructure.

John Woodcock who will chair the defence committee. He is a vocal supporter of renewing Trident – Corbyn is intent on scrapping the nuclear deterrent.

Mike Gapes who will chair the foreign affairs committee. He supports airstrikes on terrorist targets in Syria – an idea his pacifist party leader opposes.

Ian Austin who will chair the education committee. The Times calls him a "formidable" politician who is on record as telling Corbyn to stop behaving like a "student union president".

Tristram Hunt who will chair the communities and local government committee. Hunt backed Kendall for the leadership and has attacked Corbyn on an almost daily basis since.

(Labour List carries a full list of the new chairs here.)

How did this backbench coup happen?

Not by chance. Labour List says "there has clearly been forethought put into this by Corbyn-sceptic MPs". Intriguingly, only four of the 17 positions were even contested.

Tom Harris, a former Scottish Labour MP writing in the Daily Telegraph, says it's an indication that the PLP is "determined not to allow the party to go quietly into that dark night". It's "a tentative first step towards the civil war" that was inevitable from the moment Corbyn's victory was announced two months ago.

How has Corbyn reacted?

Calmly. The Times quotes a Corbyn spokesman saying: "We'll work with anyone who is elected to the positions."

Corbyn could be said to have invited this problem by saying during the leadership campaign that he wanted to make sure there was a "dialogue" between the backbench committees and Labour frontbenchers.

"It seems that Labour MPs are also keen to make sure the committees play a more active role," says Labour List.

Jeremy Corbyn gets 'full Marx' from 'contemptuous' Cameron

5 November

David Cameron and his Tory backbenchers appear to have tired of Jeremy Corbyn's attempt to make the weekly session of Prime Minister's Questions a little more useful and a lot less raucous.

After yesterday's PMQs, Cameron was accused of treating Corbyn with contempt and cracking an inappropriate and feeble joke – awarding the Labour leader "full Marx" for leading Labour to the Left. Boom, boom.

"Unfortunately for Cameron," writes John Rentoul in The Independent, "his leaderly insouciance came across as callousness" – because he launched his gag when Corbyn asked a serious question about the looming "winter crisis" in the NHS.

"If he [Corbyn] wants to know who is heading for a winter crisis I would predict that it is the Labour party that is heading for a crisis," Cameron said. "Look at his appointments. His media adviser is a Stalinist, his new policy adviser is a Trotskyist and his economic adviser is a communist. If he is trying to move the Labour party to the left I'd give him full Marx."

Tim Montgomerie, the Times columnist and leading advocate of "compassionate Conservatism", was unimpressed, tweeting: "Corbyn talking about the NHS and tax credits. Cameron talking about Corbyn's advisers. Not a good contrast for the PM."

The Guardian's Andrew Sparrow wrote: "Cameron can no longer hide the scorn he clearly feels for Corbyn. But letting it show is not necessarily a good idea."

As for the Tory backbenchers, they had bayed and jeered as Corbyn rose to ask his first question – on the subject of tax credit cuts. The trouble is, "the incessant jeering is not just tiresome," says Jason Beattie of the Daily Mirror, "it must look odious to any casual viewer."

So, is Cameron's contempt for Corbyn a sign of weakness on the Tory leader's part, or does it simply reflect his confidence?

George Eaton in the New Statesman says Cameron believes he has little to fear from ridiculing Corbyn because of the Labour leader's poor personal rating. However, the PM "would be wise not to appear more concerned with attacking Corbyn than with addressing policy failures".

For now, Eaton concludes, Cameron believes he has little to fear. "The problem for the Labour leader is how many on his benches agree."

This is a question Mary Riddell addresses in her Daily Telegraph column this week. "Critics who warned of mutiny and meltdown are alarmed to find that Mr Corbyn is doing rather well," she writes.

On policy issues, he has seemed both lucky and perceptive. George Osborne's tax credit troubles have put Labour "on the side of the fair-minded" while, on Syria, Corbyn's long-held opposition to air strikes has now been endorsed by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

And yet, and yet… "While Mr Corbyn may to some extent be making the political weather, the mood within his party is now glacial," says Riddell. His appearances at weekly meetings of Labour MPs elicit no mutters of welcome, according to his opponents. "Even Ed Miliband got a round of applause," one senior figure told her.

"He looks tired," said another. "He's not a leader or a manager, and he struggles in environments where people don't agree with him. We all know that the emperor has no clothes."

But what have Corbyn's critics within his party got to offer instead? "The uncomfortable truth remains that – for all the sulking, rage, fear and cudgelling of brains within mainstream Labour – there is as yet no discernible alternative to Mr Corbyn's principled if ragged agenda."

If Labour's moderates are to recover, says Riddell

they must first be "humble enough" to learn from Corbyn. "Whatever his faults, he has shown that upholding promises and values can destabilise an over-confident government.

It is no longer enough for Labour centrists to intone the Jeremiad in which they bewail their party's fate and prophesy the leader's downfall. Until they grasp why he succeeded and they failed, then Corbynism is here to stay."

Another commentator believes there is a way Labour under Corbyn could oust the Tories at the 2020 general election – by entering an electoral pact with the Lib Dems and the Greens.

"We are going to need all the non-Tory voters we can find," says the former Labour MP Chris Mullin in an interview with the New Statesman.

"In key marginal seats, there needs to be just one anti-Tory candidate," says Mullin, who predicted in his 1982 novel A Very British Coup that a left-winger would take over the party.

"In one or two places, Totnes for example, and certainly one of the Brighton seats, it will be the Greens. In many places it will be the Labour candidate. And in quite a lot of places it needs to be the Liberal Democrat candidate.

Mullin admits that "the tribalists on all sides will start jumping up and down" at his suggestion. "But if they want to get real, given the political climate in which we live, this is the only hope of getting a non-Tory majority in the foreseeable future, and it needs to be thought about very seriously."

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.