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Jeremy Corbyn faces no confidence motion and leadership challenge

Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey have submitted a motion ahead of Monday's PLP meeting. 

The long-threatened coup attempt against Jeremy Corbyn has begun. I reported several weeks ago that Brexit would be "the trigger" for a leadership challenge and Corbyn's opponents have immediately taken action. Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey have submitted a motion of no confidence in the Labour leader for discussion at Monday's PLP meeting. If accepted, it will be followed by a secret ballot of MPs on Tuesday. A spokesman for Corbyn told me it was "time for the party to unite and focus on the real issues that affect peope from today's decision and hold the government to account on their exit negotiations." 

Any confidence motion would be purely symbolic. But Corbyn's opponents are also "absolutely convinced" that they have the backing of the 51 MPs/MEPs needed to endorse a leadership challenger and trigger a contest. Letters are expected to be delivered to general secretary Ian McNicol from this weekend. The prospect of a new Conservative prime minister and an early general election has pushed MPs towards action. "We have to get rid of him now," a former shadow cabinet minister told me. "If we go into an election with him as leader we'll be reduced to 150 seats."

Hilary Benn, Tom Watson, Angela Eagle and Dan Jarvis are among those cited as potential candidates. One MP suggested that a "Michael Howard figure" was needed to steer the party through the next election. John McDonnell, Corbyn's closest ally and another potential successor, is believed to lack sufficient support (15 per cent of MPs/MEPs) to make the ballot. 

Labour figures were dismayed by Corbyn's performance during the referendum and partly blame his lack of enthusiasm for defeat. Polling showed that nearly half of the party's voters were unaware of its position a few weeks before polling day. Corbyn is also charged with costing support by conceding the weekend before the referendum that it was "impossible" to limit free movement. "It simply shone a light on how utterly out of touch Corbyn and McDonnell are with many traditional Labour voters outside of London," a senior MP told me. "Jeremy made the biggest concern for traditional Labour voters thinking of voting Leave - the impact of freeedom of movement - his main reason why Britain should Remain. It was a sort of political suicide of genius proportions." 

The rebels are seeking shadow cabinet support for their challenge (one spoke of a "moral responsibility" on them) but no one called for Corbyn's resignation at today's two and three quarter hour meeting. I'm told that shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray was the only member to directly criticise his leadership. In a statement relesed earlier today, Watson emphasised the need for "stability". He said: "Labour has lessons to learn and we will to continue to listen but our focus over the next few days must be to reassure voters, millions of whom are very concerned about our country's future. They should know that we will work in Parliament to provide stability in a period of great instability for our country." 

The general secretaries of 12 affiliated trade unions have rejected any move against Corbyn. In a statement published on LabourList, they wrote: "The Prime Minister’s resignation has triggered a Tory leadership crisis. At the very time we need politicians to come together for the common good, the Tory party is plunging into a period of argument and infighting. In the absence of a government that puts the people first Labour must unite as a source of national stability and unity.

"It should focus on speaking up for jobs and workers’ rights under threat, and on challenging any attempt to use the referendum result to introduce a more right-wing Tory government by the backdoor. 

"The last thing Labour needs is a manufactured leadership row of its own in the midst of this crisis and we call upon all Labour MPs not to engage in any such indulgence."

Many Labour MPs accept that Corbyn would likely win any leadership contest owing to his mass support among party activists. But they are prepared to make multiple attempts. "If you’re going to go for it, you’ve got to accept that the first time he would come back and win," an MP told me. You’ve then got to be ready to go again. The first time will be a softening-up exercise. I don’t think he’d run again twice, I don’t think he has the guts for it.”

Earlier reports of a letter signed by 55 Labour MPs calling for Corbyn to resign were  dismissed by some as a leadership plant. "It's Damian [McBride] or someone who's read his book," one suggested. They believe the claim was a time-honoured device to weaken the rebels by creating false expectations.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder