Nine months after being elected leader with the biggest mandate in the history of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn stands on the precipice of being ousted from the post.
Within hours of the Brexit result on Friday morning, rumours of impending shadow ministerial resignations began to circulate. Extraordinarily, more than two-thirds of the shadow cabinet have since gone, with more junior ministers having departed on top of that.
Already no friends of the left-wing leader, the final straw for Labour MPs came with the referendum result and the mounting evidence of how Corbyn and his team actively worked to scupper the Remain campaign. EU membership is an article of faith for most Labour members, and we now learn that the party leader repeatedly failed to attend Remain campaign meetings, and even refused to share party membership data with Remain. “Our data is our data,” his office told them. Most remarkably of all, he has refused to confirm that he actually voted to stay in the EU once in the privacy of the polling booth.
The second cause of this week’s rebellion lies in the chance that the next General Election might be less than 12 months away. It was one thing biding time to remove Corbyn before a 2020 poll, but most expect the new Prime Minister to seek a new mandate quickly. Based on the evidence of the collapse in Labour’s heartland support last week, MPs fear the party could face electoral annihilation under Corbyn’s leadership.
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Any other politician in this scenario would be toast. But Corbyn does not play by the usual rules. He does not depend on the parliamentary party for legitimacy and he is perfectly prepared to bear the hostility of his MPs, the media and the wider population alike. Having spent a lifetime on the political margins, the opprobrium of others puts Corbyn back in his comfort zone. And if a Labour leader stubbornly sticks their heels in, the election rules ushered in by Ed Miliband make forcing them out incredibly hard.
The key comes down to the views of the party members. Until now, Corbyn has been protected by their support – indeed many of them joined the party because of him.
Does the membership still stand by him? The truth is nobody knows. Usually, you only launch a coup d’état if you are confident of success. But there is no such certainty among Labour MPs. Instead, there is simply desperation and a hope that his position can be made untenable so that he voluntarily walks away. And there is a hope – but it is no more than that – that pro-European Labour members have been shaken from their stupor by the events of the last week.
Recent polling shows that nearly one-third of those who voted Labour in 2015 – a disastrous election year for the party – will not do so again. From the view of the Labour moderates, the alternative to the demise of Corbyn is the demise of the party as a whole. He does not even have enough supporters to fill a full shadow ministerial team, and if he survives this coup attempt then even more extreme options are being considered.
If a majority of the 229 Labour MPs break away, that new rump would be recognised by Parliament as the Official Opposition and receive the public funding that comes with it. The Labour Party has split before, and the tensions today are probably even greater than those of the early 80s. In this scenario, Corbyn would remain leader, but of what?
To steal the words of a man we should have listened more to over the last week, this may not be the end of this. But it is the beginning of the end. Whether that’s the end for Corbyn, or the end for the Labour Party, only time will tell.