Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is over. The only question now is when – and how

Come and get me, Corbyn could defiantly cry – in which case, Angela Eagle certainly will

John Rentoul
Sunday 03 July 2016 14:37 BST
Jeremy Corbyn remains despite a vote of no confidence in his leadership
Jeremy Corbyn remains despite a vote of no confidence in his leadership (Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

It is foolish to make predictions about politics, so let’s make some more. I think Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is over. The only question is how it ends. There are two possibilities. Either he will stand down, probably after he has replied to the Prime Minister’s statement on the Chilcot report on Wednesday, or he will fight on and be defeated in a leadership election, whenever that is held.

Confirmation that the end is nigh came in a YouGov poll for The Times yesterday, which found that 54 per cent of Labour Party members say that Corbyn should stand down, either now (44 per cent) or before the next election (10 per cent). I would translate “before the next election” as “of course he should go but I’m not going to answer an opinion poll in the way the right-wing media want me to”.

The poll asked how members would vote in a leadership contest between Corbyn and Angela Eagle, and found that Corbyn led by only 50 per cent to 40 per cent. That is not nearly enough to get him through a leadership campaign – not the way opinions about him are going. It may be that most of the 60,000 members who have joined in the past week want to defend him against a coup, but many of them may be disappointed Labour supporters who want a new leader.

PM tells Corbyn to go

Even Labour Party members don’t say he is competent or likely to win the next election, according to a poll biased by the pressures of party loyalty. Not that they think anybody else is likely to win the next election, but the one thing it is safe to say is that the belief that simply electing Corbyn leader would be enough to usher in the new Jerusalem has ebbed away.

Corbyn’s competence, to put it at its politest, was called into question again on Thursday when he managed inadvertently to compare the Israeli government to Isis – at the publication of a report on anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

Corbyn would not be human if he were not torn between a stubborn refusal to bow to what he sees as bullying by Labour MPs, and a feeling that it would be too miserable to carry on. To the extent that there is a plan to get rid of him, it consists of trying to make his life as difficult as possible in the hope that he would simply give up and go.

The revolt against him was provoked by the feeling among MPs – and shared by half of party members, according to YouGov – that he did badly in the referendum campaign. This was not really fair, because even Tony Blair in his pomp could not have made up the 1.3m-vote gap, but it crystallised the structural problem, which is that most Labour MPs have no confidence in their leader.

The revolt was given urgency by the threat of an early election after the change of prime minister. That threat has receded, because Tory MPs don’t want an early election – they want a quiet life and no more risks taken – and have forced all their leadership candidates to promise not to hold one. But the defences around Corbyn have been breached, and the MPs who want him out, 172 out of 232 according to Tuesday’s vote of no confidence, have no choice now but to press ahead.

There is always a risk that they will not succeed, and that Corbyn manages to win a contested election, which would keep him in post for another year. But all that would do is postpone the end: he is not going to become more competent, or more inspiring to more people than the dwindling band of true believers that he has now.

So it is up to him. Eagle postponed her challege only to see if Corbyn would yield to an appeal from his own supporters to quit. He could plough on. He could try to use what he is bound to condemn as the Chilcot whitewash next week to try to rally his flagging devotees and, like Monty Python’s Black Knight, tell Eagle that the front-bench resignations are “just a flesh wound”. Come and get me, he could defiantly cry. In which case, she will.

She needs 50 MPs or MEPs to nominate her and then a leadership election is triggered. There has been a lot of pointless argument about whether or not Corbyn would also need 50 nominations in order to be a candidate in that contest: the rules are unclear and the party’s National Executive gets to decide. For the moment, Corbyn has a majority on the National Executive, so he would be a candidate. The only question is when the election would be – and again the National Executive decides.

If Corbyn stands down, the rules change, because in the case of a vacancy candidates need only 38 nominations to stand. In that case there might be several candidates, and a Corbynite such as John McDonnell or Clive Lewis might win enough nominations to stand (there were 40 votes for Corbyn on the no-confidence motion).

Then we might see Owen Smith, Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy (all of whom voted against airstrikes in Syria, making them more palatable to Corbynite members) enter the lists. Dan Jarvis and Yvette Cooper, who would be portrayed as pro-war candidates, might also want to run.

Whatever happens, I don’t think a split in the party is likely. Even if Corbyn or a Corbynalike wins again, I don’t think Labour MPs would set up a separate group in Parliament to seek official status as Her Majesty’s Opposition. The fight will go on and eventually the Labour members will get their wish: Corbyn will go long before the next general election.

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