Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement that Labour was backing a December general election sparked a furious war within the parliamentary party, with one MP branding it “sheer madness” while frontbenchers sent out messages declaring, “Bring it on”.
The Labour leader’s office was forced to deny claims by some of the party’s MPs that there was not even a majority for an early election at the shadow cabinet meeting which approved the shift.
And Tory sources claimed that Labour’s whips had temporarily let the leader “off the leash”, only to later attempt to reassert control by using wrecking amendments in a bid to block an election at which they fear large losses.
Labour MP Neil Coyle told The Independent that Labour was not ready for an election.
“Party members up and down the the country who want a change of government will be angry and frustrated at this cack-handed display, given we have not got candidates in some places and you can’t even get Vote Labour posters from the shop,” said Mr Coyle.
Former minister Ben Bradshaw described the decision as “unfortunate”, arguing that a general election was not an appropriate means to settle the Brexit debate because it would be fought on many other issues.
“The overwhelming majority of the parliamentary Labour Party think in principle that a general election is not the democratically legitimate way to resolve Brexit,” he said.
No vote was taken at Tuesday morning’s meeting, where Mr Corbyn told colleagues that Labour was now able to back an election, as its condition that a no-deal Brexit must be off the table had been met.
Flanked by frontbench colleagues as he announced the decision to the media, the Labour leader appeared to acknowledge that there had been division within his party over the issue.
“The Labour Party loves a debate, but they also love the end of the debate,” said Mr Corbyn. “This is the end of the debate and we are going out there to win.”
One shadow cabinet source made clear there had been divided opinions in the meeting, telling The Independent: “Shadow cabinet is a place where there is always discussion, but collective responsibility reigns and people are united in going for an election.”
Mr Corbyn and his inner circle, including advisers Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy, have long backed a general election ahead of any referendum on Brexit, arguing that Labour should take office and negotiate its own “credible” EU withdrawal deal before putting it to the people.
But he faced growing pressure from senior colleagues, including deputy leader Tom Watson, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry to prioritise a Final Say vote ahead of a general election. In recent weeks, even close Corbyn ally John McDonnell indicated he was ready to consider the referendum-first option.
In a key change of stance, Mr Corbyn resisted repeated efforts by the prime minister to trigger an election under fixed-term parliaments legislation, arguing that it should not go ahead so long as no-deal Brexit remained a risk.
He stuck by this position as late as the shadow cabinet meeting on Monday, when a Halloween crash-out was taken off the table by the EU’s offer to delay Brexit to 31 January.
But last weekend’s decision by Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party to back a one-line bill for a December poll shifted the political calculations.
Knowing that their support could deliver the election Mr Johnson wanted, Labour risked being isolated as the one major party holding out against a vote for the public, vulnerable to inevitable taunts from Tories that it was frightened of their verdict.
Mr Corbyn told Tuesday’s meeting that Labour’s condition had now been met and the party would “launch the most ambitious and radical campaign for real change our country has ever seen”.
There was immediate dissent from within Labour ranks, with veteran MP Barry Sheerman even predicting frontbench resignations.
Mr Sheerman said it was “sheer madness to hold a general election in December and on Boris Johnson’s agenda”.
And he added: “A clear majority of our shadow cabinet were against a December election yesterday but Jeremy Corbyn has been persuaded to override them after interventions from Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy.”
Paul Farrelly told the Commons that he would vote against an early election, as he did not believe no-deal Brexit had been taken off the table.
Although supporting his party’s decision, mayor of London Sadiq Khan suggested a new referendum was still the most important next step in the Brexit process.
“But if there is to be a general election first, then those whose future is most affected must be given a say – including 16- and 17-year-olds and EU citizens living in the UK,” he added.
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