Jeremy Corbyn would have known that making Ken Livingstone the joint chair of Labour’s review of defence was likely to generate a few colourful headlines. But even the Labour leader must have been taken aback by the extraordinary chain of events that followed this most controversial appointment yesterday.
Apparently many Labour MPs were utterly astonished when it was announced that Livingstone, a long-standing opponent of nuclear weapons, had been given this key role by a party already riven with division over Trident renewal.
Within moments of Red Ken getting the gig, the BBC was reporting that his co-chair – shadow defence secretary Maria Eagle was “furious”.
Eagle, who is pro-Trident believing in multilateral disarmament, was said to have concerns that she is being undermined and was incensed that she had not been consulted about the former London mayor’s new role.
If that was not damaging enough, the row escalated in a farcical and unsavoury manner to heights that were quite remarkable even by Livingstone’s standards.
The manure really hit the windmill when the shadow defence minister Kevan Jones had the misfortune to make his entirely justified reservations about Livingstone’s new job.
Displaying a lamentable lack of judgment and taste, Livingstone reacted in objectionable fashion when he reacted to the criticisms, which happened to come from a Labour MP, who has won enormous respect for the way in which he has spoken candidly and movingly about mental health problems he has experienced in the past.
“I think he might need some psychiatric help. He’s obviously very depressed and disturbed. He should pop off and see his GP before he makes these offensive comments,” quipped Red Ken without any thought as to who was actually being offensive.
Livingstone then compounded his crime by refusing to say sorry in a series of interviews. The best he could do was to claim he was unaware of Jones’s medical history (as if that was any excuse) and offer a series of unpleasantly defiant utterances as he dug deeper and deeper.
“He was rude about me, I was rude back to him. He needs to get over it,” was one of Livingstone’s more gracious remarks.
As the political classes looked on open-mouthed horror, Livingstone finally attempted bowed to political pressure to do the decent thing and posted an apology on Twitter – many hours after slinging his insults.
Livingstone’s graceless performance made yesterday yet another bad day for Labour.
From Corbyn’s point of view perhaps the only straw that can be clutched is that the outrage over Livingstone’s behaviour may in some way mask the confusion and division that engulfs the party.
Leaving aside distractions caused by yesterday’s unpleasantness, Livingstone’s new job simply raise more difficult questions about Corbyn’s leadership. As Labour faced calls for Livingstone’s resignation Corbyn said it was the party’s National Executive Committee which had made the appointment – a response that was interpreted as an unwillingness to sack him.
Many within Labour are wondering just who is pulling the strings at the top of the party and are concerned about the influence exerted by Livingstone.
All of this will fuel the dismay, which is growing among the moderates in the parliamentary Labour Party who does not subscribe to Corbynmania. Unless there is a dramatic turn around, it seems only a matter of time before the divisions in Labour turn into a fully-fledged split.