Spare us the faux outrage, Jeremy Corbyn had to sack Owen Smith

corbyn smith
James Aitchison

Jeremy Corbyn has come under heavy criticism from political commentators and members of his own party after sacking shadow secretary for Northern Ireland Owen Smith on 23rd March.

Missing from the faux outrage, however, is that Smith broke the code of cabinet collective responsibility. So Corbyn had no real choice but to fire him.


One criticism came from Labour peer Peter Hain. He described the firing of Smith as a “terrible Stalinist purge”:

A swift response

Smith, who previously ran a failed leadership challenge against Corbyn, published an article for the Guardian on 23 March. In it he argued for a second referendum on the terms of Brexit. This view is at odds with Labour’s stated position [pdf p24] on Brexit:

Labour accepts the referendum result and a Labour government will put the national interest first.

Corbyn sacked Smith on the same day.


This isn’t the first time Corbyn has disciplined a shadow cabinet member for going against party policy.

The Labour leader came to a “mutual decision” with longtime ally Chris Williamson for the latter to resign in January. Williamson broke with the party’s position when he argued for higher council tax on more expensive properties.

While it may open him up to criticism, Corbyn has been consistent in his dealing with cabinet rebellion. Even if his actions cost him, in the case of Williamson, an ally on the frontbench.

Faux outrage

But certain Labour MPs were quick to express their shock and alarm at Smith’s removal. They appeared to view the move as Corbyn punishing Smith for his pro-remain stance. However, some others were quick to point out an important point missing from the outrage.

Furthermore, sacking one frontbencher is hardly a “purge”:

A clear breach of conduct

By publishing views at odds with the Labour party policy, Smith broke the code of cabinet collective responsibility. Members of the cabinet or shadow cabinet are required to publicly support the positions decided by the party, according to the code. This applies even if they do not privately agree with the stance.

So Twitter users asserted that Corbyn had no choice but to fire Smith:

The rules are simple

Smith is perfectly entitled to his private opinions. However, regardless of how principled his stance he had a duty to support the party’s official position. He failed in this duty, so sacking him was the only sensible option.

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Featured image via Youtube and Chatham House/Flickr

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