Could the first by-election of the 57th parliament spring a surprise?
Sinn Féin won West Tyrone with a big majority in the 2017 election, but the circumstances of the by-election – the incumbent Barry McElduff resigned after he posted a Twitter video of himself balancing a loaf of Kingsmills bread on his head on the 42nd anniversary of the Kingsmill murders, when ten workmen were shot dead by the IRA – mean that it may not be an ordinary by-election. (McElduff has said that the video was not intended to reference the killings, but accepts that not everyone will be able to believe that.)
The UUP have already called for a “non-partisan” candidate to stand and now Kevin Skelton, whose wife was among the dead in the Omagh bombing, has said that he would be willing to run for the seat. A similar approach slashed the Sinn Féin majority in 2013 in Mid-Ulster, and in that instance, Martin McGuinness had resigned without acrimony in order to focus full-time on his duties as deputy first minister.
So while it’s unlikely, it not impossible that Sinn Féin will lose the by-election to a candidate, who, regardless of their left-right placement, is not going to vote to bring down a Conservative government while Jeremy Corbyn is Labour leader and John McDonnell is shadow chancellor, a further layer of insulation for the government.
In any case, there is a growing sense in most of the Labour party that the parliament is going to run long, because the government has no real agenda which means that finding a way to defeat them is in any case quite difficult and the structure of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act means that even losing a budget or a major vote on a Brexit issue no longer forces another election.
That’s one reason why worries about Corbyn’s age, which the Indy‘s Joe Watts writes about today, are a topic of increasing discussion in Labour circles and not just among his enemies.
But there are two reasons why it remains more likely than not that Corbyn will continue on to fight the next election. The first is Labour’s Brexit position. There is a great deal to criticise about it as far as the national interest goes but it’s a pretty sweet position as far as Labour’s electoral interest is concerned. But it’s hard to see how any of the remotely plausible contenders to replace Corbyn – not Emily Thornberry, not Angela Rayner, not Laura Pidcock and not Jon Ashworth – could occupy it as effectively.
The second can be found in Labour’s parliamentary selections across the country. The biggest winners among the expanded Labour membership have not been pukka Corbynites but candidates a little closer to the party’s centre. Leadership elections are volatile and anything can happen thanks to Labour’s £3 scheme, but if I had to bet blind, I’d say that Labour’s next leader is likely to be closer to Ed Miliband politically than to Corbyn as it stands.
And while that remains the case, I wouldn’t stake anything on a leadership election this side of the 2022 election.