Labour MPs began their move against Jeremy Corbyn partly because they were worried about a snap General Election in October or November, called by new Prime Minister Boris Johnson to strengthen his mandate, taking advantage of the weak Labour party to increase his small majority. The other consideration is that the short time until the election would make it impossible for Momentum to deselect Labour MPs and select far-Left replacements.
First Hilary Benn was fired by Jeremy Corbyn in the middle of the night after expressing his concern with Corbyn’s leadership. Then a significant chunk of the Shadow Cabinet resigned while the Parliamentary Labour Party prepared a vote of no confidence in Corbyn’s leadership of the PLP. Shadow ministers kept resigning, all explaining that they didn’t feel Mr Corbyn could win a general election and calling on him to go. Labour in the Lords announced it would no longer follow the Labour whip, essentially declaring independence. Yesterday, 172 of Labour’s 230ish MPs voted that they have no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Only 40 voted to support him, a mere 17% of the Parliamentary Labour Party. And now members of half-complete new Shadow Cabinet, appointed on Monday, have also begun to resign.
Any leader with any decency, honour or common sense would, now, resign. Mr Corbyn cannot fill a shadow front bench. He cannot lead Labour in Parliament.
And this means Jeremy Corbyn cannot become Prime Minister, because the UK is a Parliamentary democracy, and the Prime Minister becomes Prime Minister by commanding the confidence of the House of Commons. If there was a general election in October and Labour somehow won 400 seats, Jeremy Corbyn would only have the confidence of some 200 of them. He wouldn’t be able to govern. He wouldn’t be able to fill a Cabinet either. Ultimately, in those circumstances, another Labour MP would be forced to form a Government.
But this is all if there’s an October 2016 election. Only 48 hours ago, everyone thought that this was more likely than not. Since then, though, both Boris Johnson and Stephen Crabb, two of the leading candidates to be the next Conservative leader and PM, have both said they wouldn’t seek an early election, meaning that the Parliament could be allowed to run on to May 2020.
Jeremy Corbyn has not resigned. Jeremy Corbyn still says that he’s not planning to resign. He insists that he will only be ousted by a leadership challenger defeating him in a contested election which he expects to win.
I’m not sure that he’ll find a campaign so easy as the first time. It’ll likely be a head-to-head against one candidate, either Tom Watson or Angela Eagle, with the whole soft left, Blairites, Brownites and Spellarite old right united behind them. But the election will come down to competing membership drives between the Corbynites and everyone else, and ultimately I think that Corbyn has the edge.
So let’s play it out. If Jeremy Corbyn faces down his leadership critics and either avoids or wins a leadership challenge, what happens next?
Jeremy Corbyn still won’t have the confidence of his colleagues
Winning another leadership election, or holding on without one, magically mean that the 170+ members of the Parliamentary Labour Party will have confidence in him or his leadership. That bridge is burnt. Mr Corbyn faces four years leading a party with only 40 allies to send on to TV shows to defend him,
Jeremy Corbyn’s front bench will be hugely overworked
The normal size of the Opposition Front Bench is something like 75 MPs, shadowing Secretaries of State, Ministers and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and Parliamentary Private Secretaries. They need to be in the House of Commons for ministerial Question Times, debates and statements by their opposites. They need to propose amendments to legislation. They need to lead for the opposition at Westminster Hall debates.
Outside of Parliament, they have to represent their policy areas at conferences, think-tank events and Party commissions. They have to appear on the news when their policy area is in the national eye.
Jeremy Corbyn only has 40 MPs — including himself — who voted to express confidence in his leadership. It’s become clear that he will not be able to appoint a full front bench team, and will force shadow ministers to double-up on jobs. His office is briefing that he might reduce the size of the Shadow Cabinet.
But these 40 brave souls will be chronically overworked, and struggle to fulfil their parliamentary and political duties. The Official Opposition will spend four years operating at half-strength at best, without being able to rely on planted questions among friendly backbenchers.
He’ll be too busy trying to oust his own MPs
Corbyn’s team have been busily briefing that there will be ‘consequences’ for the MPs that don’t back him. He is widely expected to reform the party rules to give the membership control over party policy (rather than the current system of a Policy Forum and annual Conference) and make it easier for activists to deselect centrist MPs.
Mandatory re-selection or easier deselection drive extremism in politics, as we’ve seen in the USA, where the primary system benefits extreme candidates versus moderates. It forces MPs to focus on appeasing their most extreme local elements rather than representing their broad constituency. It makes local politics much nastier. And it’s the holy grail of the Labour Hard Left, who want to purge out the current Parliamentary Party and replace the MPs with more ideologically-suitable candidates (which means the sort of people who sold me newspapers at university).
So 80% of Labour MPs will be fighting selection battles against their party leadership. If they lose, then the Labour Party will run someone else in that seat. Until then, many of these MPs will face Momentum protests outside their offices and harassment on social media. Some might decide to stand as independents. Some of them will win as independents, and others will split the vote and Labour will lose. Some of the new candidates, lacking the incumbency advantage of a sitting, locally-popular MP, will lose Labour seats it would otherwise have won.
All of this will also need attention from the leadership. Momentum can’t do it all. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell will have to travel to the constituencies to promote their challengers. It’s another major distraction to the business of opposition.
The Government can ignore him
Every Prime Ministers’ Questions, Corbyn will stand up and challenge Boris or Theresa or whoever it is, but every week all the PM will have to say is
“the Right Honourable Member can’t even command the confidence 20% of his own Members. He needs to do the honourable thing for his party and his country and resign”
And that’s that. The same will apply to his Shadow Cabinet, to his policy initiatives, to anything. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party is over, and he will be easily brushed aside in the national debate.
He’ll be a national joke
Worse, though, is that Jeremy Corbyn will morph from the honest, honourable kind man of the public imagination into a national joke.
I never bought into the myth of honourable Corbyn, seeing how he twisted and lied and obfuscated during the leadership campaign, and how he’s intimidated and threatened his Labour colleagues in the last year. But any trace of that image will disappear.
It’s hard to emphasise how important resignation is to the British genius. It’s part of what it means to be British. When you lose, you resign. When you win, but not by enough, you resign. When you’ve lost the confidence of your boss, your colleagues or your employees, you resign. Britain, for all of the criticism of a culture of blaming others, has a culture of taking responsibility and leaving with dignity. David Cameron resigned. Margaret Thatcher resigned after winning a majority of her MPs’ support but not a big enough majority. Tony Blair agreed to step down after a letter from just 17 MPs. That’s the British way.
In Corbyn, people will see a small, stubborn man unwilling to accept the reality of his situation; a ‘leader’ without followers, organising rallies about how great he is while his party withers. People might like Corbyn. They might even blame the PLP for a week or two. But after a while, all the public will remember is that the Labour Leader is the person who failed but didn’t take responsibility and didn’t resign.
PMQs will become a weekly torture. Mock the Week will make the Corbyn zombie leadership a constant joke. He’ll enter British cultural slang. ‘Corbyn’ will forever mean a leader without followers, a delusional refusal to accept reality, destroying one of the UK’s great political parties in a tragic murder-suicide. It will enter the political lexicon alongside Lansbury, Eden and Duncan Smith as examples of failed leadership.
This will last for FOUR YEARS
And all of the above will carry on for four years. Four years of a Shadow Cabinet of 40. Four years of deselections, reselections, protests and rallies and threats. Four years of the Tories being able to laugh in the faces of the Official Opposition in Parliament and of the country laughing and despairing of Jeremy Corbyn in newspaper columns, TV comedy and even down the pub. Four years in which to kill off the Labour Party.
If Jeremy Corbyn stays on — whether he wins another leadership election or whether he avoids a challenge — this is the picture.
Even Jeremy Corbyn is human, despite what his more-ardent fans might insist. Nobody would be able to withstand this. The psychological strain of becoming a national joke while destroying the political party to which you’ve given your life would be unbearable.
Right now, in the heat of the EU aftermath with the resignations still fresh, maybe he’s digging in with his closest advisers. Perhaps the Chilcott report will buy him a few weeks. Maybe he could even make it through the summer recess. But the idea of Jeremy Corbyn remaining the leader of the Labour party is now ludicrous.
Ironically, the only thing that could save him now is a leadership challenge. An identifiable enemy, a new campaign, a new target and dynamic could buy Corbyn some time. But even if he won the campaign and got his famous ‘mandate’, he’d be right back where he started because none of the dynamics above would have changed.
And so now we wait. Hours, days or weeks, but Jeremy Corbyn will resign because his other options are much worse.
Thanks to Jay Stoll who pointed out that some MPs had started to worry about what happens if there’s no 2016 election