The challenge to Jeremy Corbyn's leadership gathers pace

With Hilary Benn's 1am sacking, the coup against the Labour leader is under way

John Rentoul
Sunday 26 June 2016 07:45 BST
At a "critical" time for the country, the Labour Party required strong and effective leadership, Mr Benn said
At a "critical" time for the country, the Labour Party required strong and effective leadership, Mr Benn said

The campaign for a Labour government has a plan. Now it has a candidate. As with the Conservatives who want Anybody But Boris, the ABC crowd (Anybody But Corbyn – But Not McDonnell Either) had a problem: you can’t beat somebody with nobody.

In my Sunday article I said that the first stage of the plan was a secret ballot on a motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, to be held after Labour MPs meet tomorrow, but that the next stage required a candidate. I pointed out that Dan Jarvis, Hilary Benn, Tom Watson and Lisa Nandy were on the bookmakers’ lists.

Now, by telling Corbyn directly in a phone conversation that he has no confidence in his leadership and getting himself sacked, Benn has put himself at the top of the list. Presumably, what happened was that Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s press officer, read the Observer story, that Benn was intending to lead a mass resignation of shadow ministers in an attempt to oust Corbyn. Corbyn phoned Benn to ask him what was going on, and Benn, to his credit, told him. “In a phone call to Jeremy I told him I had lost confidence in his ability to lead the party and he dismissed me.”

I will not be hard to find 50 Labour MPs and MEPs to nominate Benn as a candidate to challenge Corbyn at Labour Party conference in September. As I read the party rules, if at least one candidate has the necessary nominations, a leadership election automatically follows. The trouble is that the rules have been rewritten so many times that they don’t make sense.

They say that when the party is in opposition, a leadership election “shall take place at each annual session of party conference”. Given that an election involves a ballot of party members, it is not clear when that takes place. It is possible that it has to be held before the party conference, with the result announced then, but with the National Executive in control of the procedure, it is not at all clear what will happen. Corbyn has an uncertain majority on the National Executive, so prepare for procedural shenanigans.

If a leadership election is engineered before an early general election, the hard part would be for Benn to win it. Some Labour members who voted for Corbyn last year may be losing confidence in him too, but will they vote for the man who advocated British airstrikes against Isis in Syria so forcefully? With the Chilcot report coming on 6 July, Benn's support for the Iraq war is not going to endear him to the new members.

Given that one of the main engines of Corbyn support is opposition to warmonger Blairism, it is possible that Lisa Nandy, who voted against airstrikes, would stand a better chance.

Noon update: Hilary Benn has ruled himself out this morning as a candidate, which puts Lisa Nandy at the front of the queue. Also this morning Heidi Alexander, Gloria De Piero and Ian Murray have resigned from the shadow cabinet. Nandy was rumoured to be another possible resigner, along with Angela Eagle, but they would both be in a stronger position if they stayed. They would have clean hands and have more appeal to the Corbynista membership, especially those of them who are beginning to realise that Corbyn himself, admirable though he is to them, is not up to the job of national leadership.

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