For once, Labour might actually be doing a coup properly
Jeremy Corbyn has never been loved as leader by the Labour MPs. He didn’t have enough support to be nominated without the horribly misguided nominations of backers of other candidates, he’s neither looked nor acted like a leader once in place, and he’s never sought to reconcile the gap between his personal mandate in the party and his lack of one in parliament. Those shortcomings will now be fatal.
Corbyn had no choice but to sack Benn, though in all probability he only pre-empted Benn’s departure from the Shadow Cabinet by a matter of hours: the Shadow Foreign Secretary could not have remained in it once it was known that he was complicit in a plot to oust Corbyn. What’s now clear is that not only have those shadow ministers who joined in an attempt to create a unified team between the Corbynites and the mainstream failed but that they recognise it and are prepared to act.
So far (at the time of writing), Hilary Benn and Heidi Alexander are the only two confirmed departures. Which others will follow is the next key question. I imagine that top of the list of members that journalists will be currently scrambling to contact will be Andy Burnham, who has been about as visible as George Osborne since Thursday. A declaration there either way will give a good pointer as to where the careerist wing sees their interests as heading (though I expect he’ll do everything possible to avoid making comment).
Corbyn now faces three immense hurdles if he’s to hold on. I do not believe that he can clear all three and it’s quite possible he won’t try. They are:
Firstly, he needs to see out this day. In one sense, all he needs to do is exhibit serene fortitude. Front benchers can be replaced (probably) and storms can be ridden out. In another, this storm will be like no other which he’s faced, nor any other I can think of which any other party leader has survived. But then Corbyn is a leader like no other.
Secondly, he needs to survive the No Confidence motion which will presumably be voted on by the PLP on Tuesday if events haven’t intervened before then. If it does go that far, he’ll probably lose. Technically, that vote is only advisory – it carries no constitutional weight within the Labour rule book – but that’s like saying that the Brexit vote was advisory: you’d need to be David Lammy to think that you could credibly ignore it. (It is ironic that what will finally bring Corbyn down is his being closer to the Labour voters than the MPs).
But if he does survive or more likely, ignore events within parliament, Labour is now in a position from which a formal leadership challenge can be launched. There hasn’t been one of these since 1988, when Benn snr challenged Neil Kinnock and lost by more than 7:1. By another irony, it’s Benn’s son who is now best-placed to challenge his one-time colleague.
The problem up until now was that unlike with the Tories, there was no mechanism by which a Labour leader could be forced out without electing someone else at the same time – and the realistic alternatives were within the shadow cabinet so wouldn’t allow their names to be nominated. No longer. If push comes to shove, there is now the candidate, mechanism, support and moment for such a bid to be launched.
Push probably won’t come to shove. Corbyn must know now that the game is up to such an extent that his continuing in office would damage the causes he believes in. He – and by extension, they – would become a laughing stock if two-thirds or more of the PLP were beyond the whip. I don’t see how he can last the week. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t last the day.
As for who will replace him, Watson seems best-placed. If Corbyn does resign, Watson would act as leader which would give him the chance to impress in office at a time when he would not be overshadowed by his predecessor. He’d also have the advantage of being seen to be a unifying candidate. Of the others, Benn has clearly shown leadership capabilities but I suspect his actions have damaged him too much in the eyes of too many. MacDonnell has already ruled himself out but I can’t see there not being a full-on continuity-Corbyn candidate: after all, it’s not the policies of the leader which have brought about his downfall. The Shadow Chancellor may yet be persuaded; if not, a protege is likely. And similarly, after ousting Corbyn, the mainstream must nominate one of their own unless they’re willing to forego that privilege and swing in behind Watson in a stop-the-left move. For now, it’s advantage Deputy.