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.