Cameron-Harman love in as Labour prepares for a new leader

Though PM ducks questions on human trafficking and PMQs itself

There was a strangely jolly, almost flirtatious mood at Prime Minister's Questions today, as David Cameron paid tribute to Harriet Harman as a "credit" to her party. Facing Harman for the last time before the Opposition elects a new leader, Cameron joked that Labour's acting leader was the "most popular" of the three Labour leaders he has faced including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. And he reminded the House that "it's au revoir" rather than "goodbye" as Harman remains elected as deputy leader, a role in which may well see her stand in at the despatch box in the future.

Harman expressed sympathy to Cameron over the death of his father, and congratulations over the birth of his new daughter, but asked some tough questions on human trafficking. Harman urged Cameron to opt in to an EU Directive on the issue, but Cameron refused, claiming it goes no further than the Government's own plans. Harman said "I know some in his party are irrationally hostile to Europe" but that she hoped Cameron would not let them get in the way of signing up to the EU Directive. Cameron later implied he would consider arguments from Labour MPs for signing up to the directive.

In a separate and more partisan exchange, Cameron said it was "the height of irresponsibility" for shadow ministers to go to the TUC and encourage strikes amid the need for cutting the budget deficit.

Finally, Harman asked Cameron if the Tories were still enthusiastic about returning PMQs to twice a week, as they sometimes argued while in Opposition. Unsurprisingly, Cameron said he favoured a once a week session, describing that as "one of the few things" with which he fully agreed with Tony Blair.

UPDATE: The Prime Minister is wrong to say that Britain does not need to sign the EU Sex Slave Trafficking Directive, says former Europe minister, Denis MacShane, secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficking.

"Last week Teresa May told me Britain would not opt in. Today the PM said he would examine the issue but claimed British laws covered all the problems. But the whole point of an EU directive is that it obliges cross-frontier cooperation and an obligation meet EU rules.

"Sex slave trafficking cannot be combatted on a nation-only basis. The Government is sending out the wrong signal by saying No to a European-wide coordinated campaign. It was sad to see Nick Clegg whispering in David Cameron's ear to provide arguments for traditional Tory Euroscepticism on EU directives.

"The campaign against sex slave trafficking will continue and many will be disappointed at the opposition of Mr Cameron to this important EU directive," MacShane added.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred