In July 2015, shortly after Jeremy Corbyn became the front-runner for the Labour leadership, David Cameron bumped into him in a Westminster corridor. “You have got to be the change candidate – I was the outsider,” the Prime Minister wryly remarked, recalling his victory in the 2005 Conservative contest.
This is not the only electoral parallel between the two men. In 2015, both achieved remarkable and unanticipated victories. Cameron won a parliamentary majority, an outcome he thought so improbable that he had not prepared a speech. Corbyn became Labour leader but it was a result he originally neither wanted nor expected. “Now we need to make sure I don’t win,” he had told supporters after he made the ballot.
Less than a year after their triumphs, both men’s crowns rest uneasily. As a result of Cameron’s pre-resignation last March, the pair will not face each other at a general election. The only question is: which of them will fall first?
Cameron will likely resign if the UK votes to leave the EU on 23 June. Though some Conservative MPs say that the subsequent turmoil would necessitate his survival, most believe that the indignity of defeat would force his departure. Even if the UK votes to remain, Tory MPs do not rule out a challenge. They are aggrieved by the denial of civil-service support to pro-Brexit cabinet ministers and by Cameron’s robust criticism of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. With the odds against them, some anti-EU Tories are already eyeing the Prime Minister’s head as a consolation prize for defeat. “If there is a whiff of abuse, it won’t be hard to get 50 signatures,” a Conservative MP told me, referring to the number of names required to trigger a leadership contest. The coming boundary review, which will reduce the number of Tory MPs by about 14, and the proposed merger of constituency associations are causing further unrest.
Cameron is the first Prime Minister since 1832 to have increased his party’s share of the vote and seats at a general election. Should he win the EU referendum, in less favourable circumstances than Harold Wilson faced in 1975, his status will be further enhanced. It may seem surreal to suggest that he could be ousted but, as MPs testify, the Tory party is prone to bouts of irrationality.
Corbyn’s position has been questioned daily since he became leader in September. He entered office with the support of just 15 MPs, which fell to 14 when the late Michael Meacher was succeeded by the Liz Kendall supporter Jim McMahon. The unconverted were not persuaded when Corbyn addressed the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) for the first time this year on 29 February. “If I gave a report like that to my constituency Labour Party, members would be justified in deselecting me,” a shadow minister told me. In his ten-minute address, Corbyn said little about the EU referendum or global economic uncertainty, giving greater prominence to last October’s House of Lords defeat of tax-credit cuts. He spoke hopefully of having narrowed the Conservatives’ lead to 6 points in a recent Ipsos MORI poll – a mark of how low expectations have fallen.
At the local elections in May, Labour risks becoming the first opposition since 1982 to fail to gain seats in a non-general-election year. The party’s regional boards have been sent a list of 16 councils to target – all of them already held by Labour.
Any leader’s future would be doubted in these circumstances. MPs have ruled out a challenge before the EU referendum but there is a “live debate” about whether to act in the aftermath. Some counsel patience, fearing that Corbyn could emerge strengthened by winning an even larger share of the vote than last time. A recent YouGov poll showed that he would achieve 62 per cent of members’ support in a new contest, or 53 per cent were Labour to perform poorly in the May elections. But others argue that the risk of further damage to the party outweighs the risk of defeat to Corbyn.
They confess, however, that they lack an agreed candidate or programme. Dan Jarvis, Lisa Nandy (“on massive manoeuvres”, say MPs), Angela Eagle and Chuka Umunna are regarded as the main contenders.
Corbyn’s opponents draw some solace from the lesser popularity of John McDonnell, whom they believe they could face in a future contest (the shadow chancellor has the support of 29 per cent of members). There is increasing discussion among MPs about whether “a deal” has been struck between the leader and his closest ally. McDonnell, who stood unsuccessfully for the leadership in 2007 and 2010, is now present at “every meeting”. Some believe that this reflects the toll the job has taken on Corbyn (“He just can’t do it on his own”); others suggest that he is preparing to hand over the leadership at some point. McDonnell is said to have “massively expanded” his team and has been frequently visiting local parties.
Though it has little enthusiasm for Corbyn, the PLP is not the insurrectionary unit that some imagine. “There are a lot of people who have never looked happier, because they are the shadow minister for God-knows-what,” a senior MP told me. “They’re nice people. They don’t want a fight . . . They hope that something happens but they’re not going to do anything.” As with Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, many MPs may only be moved to act when, shortly before a general election, they panic over the looming loss of their seats.
For Cameron and Corbyn, the price of survival is eternal vigilance. To MPs, it feels as if the normal laws of politics have been suspended as their leaders focus on the enemy within, rather than without. Were they to meet again, Cameron and Corbyn could be forgiven for reflecting on the victories that now seem so distant.
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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis