If Brexit happens, Jeremy Corbyn could face a leadership challenge

Labour MPs are preparing to pin the blame on their leader's "half-hearted" EU campaign.

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Should the UK vote to leave the EU, it is David Cameron’s leadership which most believe would soon be over. But his fellow Remainer, Jeremy Corbyn, also has cause to look nervously over his shoulder

“It would be the trigger for some kind of move against him,” a Labour MP said of an Out vote, a view shared by a significant number of anti-Corbynites. “The time for dithering would finally be over,” another told me.

As the spectre of Brexit haunts their days and nights (“pretty petrified” is how an MP described the mood), the Labour leader’s opponents are preparing to pin the blame on what they regard as his “half-hearted” approach. One told me: “Jeremy will have to take responsibility in the event of a Leave vote because up until now he hasn’t shown the leadership we need. Many Labour voters still don’t know the party’s position.”

Corbyn, who was agnostic about EU membership as recently as last summer, has committed to Remain, delivering several speeches on the subject. But he is accused of devoting insufficient attention to the campaign. A former shadow cabinet minister told me “ A leadership team needs to be strategic and treat it like a national election. It’s not being treated like a national election. They’re just going through the motions.”

Another said: “There’s a problem with the leadership - they’re trying to have it both ways. They’re trying to please a lot of their hard-left supporters, who want to leave, at the same time as being In because they don’t want to throw their lot in with Farage and Le Pen. It’s leading to an incoherent message.” Many MPs blamed Corbyn for the recent poll finding that only half of Labour voters knew the party was in favour of EU membership. There was fury when he derided George Osborne's warnings of a post-Brexit recession in his speech on 2 June, with some accusing him of "sabotaging" the Remain campaign. One MP darkly suggested to me that Corbyn's team may welcome withdrawal in the belief that Labour would gain from the political and economic chaos that would result.

A rebel acknowledged that any leadership challenge would likely fail (“there’s still massive support for him among members”). But he added: “If you’re going to go for it, you’ve got to accept that the first time he would come back and win. 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.” Many MPs believe that in such circumstances Corbyn’s closest ally, John McDonnell, would seek to succeed him. But they regard the shadow chancellor as a more beatable opponent - were he to make the ballot at all. Of the 36 MPs who nominated Corbyn (35 were required), as few as 15 went on to vote for him. Scarred by this experience, many will never again aid a candidate they do not want to win.

Charged with a lacklustre EU campaign, Corbyn’s allies return fire. “It’s people like her who are the problem,” one told me, angrily pointing towards Harriet Harman in Westminster’s Portcullis House. Labour’s former acting leader had that day shared a pro-EU platform with Cameron - an act Corbyn would never consider. He and McDonnell believe that the imperative lies in a wholly distinctive Labour approach, arguing that the party was punished for its closeness to the Conservatives during the Scottish referendum campaign. "Sharing a platform with them discredits us. It demotivates the very people we are trying to mobilise,” the shadow chancellor said recently when asked whether the party should follow the example of Sadiq Khan, who also appeared with Cameron.

Corbyn’s critics also blame the media for obscuring the party’s message through a fixation with the Tories. “We do have a problem with the broadcasters,” a senior MP told me. “I think the BBC could be in breach of its legal duties because it’s focusing more on the battle between personalities and not enough on the issues. Their duty is to focus on the issue, however good a story blue-on-blue is.”

While some Corbyn opponents insist a leadership challenge would follow Brexit, others believe the timing would be wrong. “I don’t think the fundamentals have changed enough yet,” one said, also noting the imminent publication of the Iraq inquiry report on 6 July. “Whatever upside people feel coming out of the referendum will be blown away by Chilcot. That will put him back on the front foot.” Corbyn intends to make his long-promised apology for the Iraq war following the publication of the 2.6 million word report.

But a senior MP added of the referendum result: “If anything’s going to start the journey [to a leadership challenge] it will be this, including if it’s a narrow win. It will start moving quickly. Once we get into 2017-18 you’re looking at a change of Tory leader. The issue of an election becomes real. It will concentrate minds." 

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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