LAB MPs have only 3 choices: win, leave or submit – and time is running out
Never underestimate the ability of Labour MPs to fail to carry through a leadership coup. Ten days ago, it did look as if they had finally got their act together. Virtually the entire Shadow Cabinet resigning in sequence followed by an overwhelming vote of no confidence in the leader would normally have been enough.
No government could possibly withstand those actions and Labour ought to aspire to be a government and act accordingly. However, Corbyn isn’t like most leaders and aspires to hold power on different terms. Consequently, overwhelming pressure not being enough, the one final act required was a formal leadership challenge – and they’ve fluffed it.
That they have done so is remarkable. We know that 172 MPs oppose Corbyn; we know that two candidates – Angela Eagle and Owen Smith – publicly state their willingness to stand against him. The two facts ought to fit together without difficulty. Indeed, there were enough MPs who voted against him to nominate three challengers if need be. Yet while the MPs are willing to act collectively, the inability of any individual challenger to unfurl their standard in opposition to him remains painfully obvious.
It should have already happened. In allowing matters to drag on past the Chilcot publication, the Labour MPs not only lost their momentum, they gave Corbyn an ideal platform to reenergise his base; something he’ll no doubt do again during the two-day debate on the report. It will be hard to launch a challenge off the back of an event where he was right and the then nominally centrist Labour leadership was so horribly wrong. Eagle in particular has a problem there in that she personally voted for the war in Iraq – as did Tom Watson, Hilary Benn, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Alan Johnson, to name some of the more obvious potential successors to Corbyn.
The risk in the delay is twofold: firstly, that a challenge now might not occur at all, and secondly, that if it does it might well fail. Reading the mood in the Labour selectorate isn’t easy. On the one hand, it’s clear that the Labour membership has shifted to the left since 2015: polling on support for Corbyn among both new and lapsed members demonstrates that readily enough. What isn’t so obvious is whether that outweighs the drop-off in support among who voted for Corbyn last year but have been disillusioned by the experience since. Anecdotal evidence gets reported of constituency parties riding in behind the leader – including Eagle’s own branch in Wallasey – but how representative are these?
The assumption has to be that the reason everyone is holding back is because they don’t think they’d win and that they can still persuade Corbyn to step down. That seems like the triumph of hope over experience – particularly if Corbyn and the team around him have learned from this experience that they can tough these situations out.
All the same, and despite Kinnock’s speech to MPs this week, the situation remains unsustainable. A stand-off cannot continue between a leader and four-fifths of his MPs for four years; one side must prevail. If they are to remain within the same party, either the PLP must accept Corbyn’s authority or they must remove him.
And that ‘if’ hides the big question: can they remain within the same party? Having gone to the brink and then backed down from a leadership challenge, they cannot return to the status quo ante as if nothing has happened.