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Jeremy Corbyn faces worst Labour crisis since 1935 with party hit by mass resignations

This is what the week ahead will hold for Corbyn - if he can survive as leader that long

Andy McSmith
Sunday 26 June 2016 23:57 BST
Jeremy Corbyn faces a motion of no confidence in his leadership amid criticism of his handling of the EU referendum campaign
Jeremy Corbyn faces a motion of no confidence in his leadership amid criticism of his handling of the EU referendum campaign (Getty Images)

Jeremy Corbyn is facing the worst crisis to engulf any Labour leader since the pacifist George Lansbury was forced out of office in 1935.

Shockwaves from Thursday’s referendum caused Labour’s front bench team to disintegrate on Sunday, leaving its leader dangerously exposed.

Mr Corbyn is accused by critics of being at best half-hearted in his support for the Remain campaign. Labour MPs also fear that after the Conservative Party has chosen a new leader, the incoming prime minister will call a snap general election. One former Labour Cabinet minister forecast yesterday that if the party went into a general election with Mr Corbyn at the helm, they could lose 100 seats.

Corbyn says he won't resign

Today, the Labour leader is due to have a crisis meeting with his deputy, Tom Watson, who pointedly failed to speak up in support of the leader amid a flood of frontbench resignations, which is expected to continue today.

A meeting of Labour’s shadow cabinet is also in the diary – but by last night, there were gaping holes in that committee which Mr Corbyn will have a struggle to fill. The Labour leader may also have to appear in the Commons to hear a statement on the referendum, flanked by a very thin front bench team.

Later, he can expect a raucous meeting of Labour MPs and peers, who will discuss the proposed vote of no confidence in his leadership put forward by the Labour MPs Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey.

On Tuesday – if Mr Corbyn is still in office by that point – his MPs will spend the day trooping in and out of a committee room in Parliament to vote on whether they have confidence in him – a vote which he has a high chance of losing. If he is still in office by Wednesday, he can expect a direct challenge to his leadership, though there is no agreement among those manoeuvring to bring him down over who will replace him.

Yesterday, a defiant Mr Corbyn was insisting that he would fight on, confident that the party members and supporters who voted so heavily for him last year would turn out for him again in a leadership contest.

The crisis began in the middle of the night with a telephone conversation between Mr Corbyn and his Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn. The two have clashed publicly before, over Trident nuclear missiles and over intervention in the Syrian conflict.

The latest source of tension was the referendum campaign. Mr Corbyn has been opposed to British membership of the EU for most of his political life, but was persuaded by Mr Benn and others to back Labour’s official line in favour of staying in. His office has now been accused of “sabotaging” Labour Remain. One MP complained yesterday that Mr Corbyn “vacillated” and “talked out of the corner of his mouth” during the campaign.

Mr Benn told Mr Corbyn that he no longer had confidence in him, and was promptly sacked. Yesterday, he told the BBC: “There was also no confidence that we would be able to win a general election as long as Jeremy remains leader, and I felt it was important to say that. He is a good and decent man, but he is not a leader.”

Mr Benn’s sacking set off an unprecedented series of resignations. The revolt against Mr Corbyn has been to a large extent led by women MPs. Six of the 11 shadow cabinet members who resigned in the wake of Mr Benn’s sacking are women.

They were the shadow Health Secretary, Heidi Alexander, the shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell, the shadow Environment Secretary Kerry McCarthy, the shadow Transport Secretary Lilian Greenwood, the shadow Minister for Young People, Gloria de Piero, and the shadow Treasury minister, Seema Malhotra.

The Shadow Scottish Secretary – and Scotland’s only Labour MP – Ian Murray, and the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Vernon Coaker, also quit. They were followed by the shadow Justice Secretary, Lord Falconer, the shadow Attorney General, Karl Turner, and the shadow Commons Leader, Chris Bryant. More resignations are expected today.

Tom Watson, Labour’s music-loving deputy leader, was at the Glastonbury festival as the crisis began. He said in a statement: “I was disappointed to see Hilary Benn sacked in the early hours, and equally sad that so many talented, able and hard-working colleagues felt they had to leave the shadow cabinet.

“My single focus is to hold the Labour party together in very turbulent times. The nation needs an effective opposition, particularly as the current leadership of the country is so lamentable. It’s very clear to me that we are heading for an early general election and the Labour Party must be ready to form a government. There’s much work to do. I will be meeting Jeremy Corbyn to discuss the way forward.”

Though Mr Corbyn’s support within the parliamentary party is at a new low, he can count on the backing of a core of loyal shadow ministers, and from party activists who helped him pull off his extraordinary victory in last year’s leadership election. The grassroots movement, Momentum, which rose out of Mr Corbyn’s leadership campaign, is planning a demonstration outside Parliament tonight to coincide with the meeting of MPs where they will discuss the vote of no confidence put forward by the Labour MPs Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey.

Four Shadow Cabinet members came out in support of the leader, including the shadow defence secretary, Emily Thornberry, who said that asking whether Mr Corbyn would stand down was “a stupid question”.

His ally Diane Abbott said scathingly: “Some of my colleagues are labouring under the illusion that Jeremy serves as the leader of the opposition at their will and pleasure. If they want a new leader they can set up a new party.”

The shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham, who was Mr Corbyn’s main rival in the 2015 leadership election, refused to join the rebels. “I have never taken part in any coup against any leader of the Labour Party,” he said.

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