Bruising day ends with Labour in turmoil and Corbyn turning to grassroots

Big Ben, Westminster

It was an extraordinarily bruising day but Jeremy Corbyn was just about still standing as Labour leader as he addressed thousands of supporters in Parliament Square on Monday evening.

He had just come from a brutal meeting of his parliamentary party, where MP after MP called on him to step down, some shouting and some close to tears.

They had trailed into a meeting room in the Palace of Westminster for 6pm on Monday with sombre faces, while a pack of up to 100 journalists waited outside flanked by police and door staff.

Corbyn began by calling for party unity and making clear that he would not be standing down. Several of his supporters spoke up to back his formation of a new shadow cabinet, after a wave of 40 resignations from his top team over the course of Sunday and Monday.

But then came the onslaught from Labour MPs including many who had never publicly attacked him before. Robert Flello, a low-profile and previously uncritical backbencher, was the first to demand that he go. “For your sake, but most importantly for the people who need a Labour government, do the decent thing,” he said.

Shadow cabinet members resign in Labour ‘coup’ against Corbyn

The calls kept coming, with Clive Efford saying: “Search inside yourself and ask if the electorate really think you are a prime minister because I don’t really think you are.”

Another intervention came from Helen Goodman, who said: “Much as I like you on a personal level, you can’t offer leadership.”

Chris Matheson was cheered for saying he had won a swing seat from the Tories, unlike Barry Gardiner, the newly appointed shadow energy minister, who was booed for trying to defend Corbyn.

MPs also shouted at the leader that he should deal with concerns of Ian Murray, who resigned as shadow Scotland secretary on Sunday. Murray urged the leader to “call off the dogs” in reference to Momentum members protesting outside his constituency office.

Corbyn said he had called out abusive behaviour but MPs shouted: “They’re outside,” in reference to the gathered crowd.

But the biggest cheer of the evening came for Alan Johnson’s intervention, as the leader of Labour’s remain campaign criticised Corbyn’s failure to throw his full weight behind the effort to stay in the EU. Johnson said he took responsibility and Corbyn should share in that.

Unmoved by the weight of criticism, Corbyn summed up in front of his furious party, making it clear he intended to carry on with his new team.

The meeting broke up for MPs to vote, but afterwards several were openly briefing against Corbyn in the corridor outside about the usually private meeting. Others stormed off saying they were too angry to talk.

Bryant said it was a “battle for the soul of the Labour party. The writing on the wall is eight metres high and if he can’t see it he needs to go to Specsavers,” he added.

Another Labour MP, Ian Austin, said it was not just the usual suspects calling for Corbyn to go. “The overwhelming number of speakers were critical of Jeremy and saying he should stand down,” he added. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a big moment for the Labour party.”

Waiting across the corridor with a briefing of their own were two Labour spokesmen, who acknowledged most of the speakers were hostile but took issue with the idea that the majority of MPs were against him.

“He is not going to concede to a corridor coup or backroom deal that tries to pressure him out. It is all about whispering corridors, meeting together and people resigning from the appointed posts,” he said.

Tensions were running high as another aide made clear: “There is one way if people want to change the leadership of the Labour party, that is to get the names to stand a candidate and mount a challenge and have an election. Jeremy will be a candidate. This is irrelevant. All the resignations are a sideshow. If people have confidence they can win a leadership election, they can mount that challenge. If they are avoiding that, maybe they don’t have that confidence.”

The huddle of aides and journalists only broke up as Corbyn’s spokesman, Kevin Slocombe, was confronted by John Woodcock, Labour MP for Barrow and a serial rebel.

“It is extraordinary you stand and slag us off to the media, while we’re supposed to have a private meeting. You were saying it in front of all these people, this won’t be the end of it,” Woodcock said. “You are an unelected official, standing outside, briefing the media, giving a highly distorted account.”

It was a dramatic culmination of tensions after the past few days had seen the Labour leader sack his foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, for plotting a coup and 20 further resignations by shadow cabinet ministers who no longer had confidence in him.

Corbyn was holding firm against the rebels on Sunday night, saying he would fight as a candidate in any leadership election to replace him.

But things were about to get significantly worse. The steady stream of resignations over the course of Monday led one MP to compare Corbyn’s task to trying to fill a bath without a plug.

Undeterred, the Labour party press office sent out an email early in the morning announcing the promotion of Emily Thornberry to shadow foreign secretary and Diane Abbott to shadow health secretary, plus a raft of other loyalists – many only elected a year ago – to key jobs.

Corbyn had just left his home surrounded by journalists and police for a meeting with Tom Watson, the deputy leader, who was widely expected to apply pressure for him to go.

This took place at 9am and differing accounts began to emerge. On the leader’s side, it was described as cordial and calm, with no hint that Corbyn should resign. Watson’s camp agreed that the deputy leader had stopped short of calling for his head but claimed he had informed Corbyn that the party did not have confidence in his leadership.

All eyes were now on a few senior shadow cabinet ministers who had not yet shown their hands but were considered potential leadership challengers.

Rumours abounded that Lisa Nandy, the shadow energy secretary, was being set up as the rival candidate. But she soon released a joint letter with Owen Smith, the shadow work and pensions secretary, saying that they were stepping down and calling for Watson to be caretaker leader. They were joined by Nia Griffith, Kate Green, John Healey – all considered on the soft left of the party and previously part of the “make it work brigade” who were willing to give Corbyn’s leadership a chance.

The group had met Corbyn together on Monday morning claiming that they wanted to make it work but felt compelled to resign after it became clear the leader was unable to form an inclusive shadow cabinet. According to one source at the meeting, the MPs were angered that John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, “barged in” and started answering questions addressed to Corbyn himself.

The damage kept coming as Chris Bryant, who had resigned as shadow leader of the House of Commons, revealed that Corbyn had refused to confirm that he voted to remain in the EU, saying it was not the issue at hand. This was dismissed as an attempt to destabilise the party by those close to Corbyn.

Within the hour, Angela Eagle, the shadow business secretary and her sister Maria, the shadow secretary for culture, media and sport, had also gone. Angela then gave a teary interview to the BBC’s World at One programme expressing her sorrow at having to resign in such circumstances.

“With deep regret, and after nine months of trying to make it work, I have today resigned from the shadow cabinet,” she said.

Corbyn’s allies had by now conceded that another leadership election was likely in which he goes head to head with another candidate. But a row over whether he will need nominations from colleagues was brewing, as the rival sides both believe they have legal advice supporting their case.

Despite the drama, there was still business to be carried out in the House of Commons but Clive Lewis, the newly appointed shadow defence secretary, was on his way back from Glastonbury festival and Thornberry had to step in to cover her old brief at defence questions.

Meanwhile, Luciana Berger, the shadow mental health secretary and candidate to be Labour’s Liverpool mayoral candidate, was the last in a spate of shadow cabinet resignations at 2.18pm, but more junior ones followed from Jack Dromey to Keir Starmer. That left just Rosie Winterton, the chief whip, and Jonathan Ashworth, a shadow cabinet office minister, undeclared about their positions.

In the face of continuing turmoil, the Labour leader headed to the House of Commons to tackle Cameron at the despatch box, as the outgoing prime minister explained the timetable for dealing with Brexit.

Corbyn spoke to heckles of “resign” from his own side, and taunts from the green benches opposite. Dennis Skinner, the veteran Labour MP for Bolsover, shook the leader of the opposition’s hand as he entered the chamber and made a “V” sign at other backbenchers.

The Labour leader paid no heed to the shouts, except to claim that the “country will thank neither the benches in front nor those behind for indulging in internal factional manoeuvring at this time”.

‘Corbyn’s the only person who can beat Boris’: Labour members rally outside parliament

This was the leadership’s consistent message to the MPs and then again to the huge rally of supporters in Parliament Square.

To chants of “Corbyn, Corbyn, Corbyn”, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, told the rally from a stage: “Let me make it absolutely clear, Jeremy Corbyn is not resigning.”

Corbyn himself appeared just minutes later, telling the crowd he is going nowhere.

But tomorrow, he will face a motion of no confidence by secret ballot and any leadership challenger will soon have to come out of the shadows.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rowena Mason, Jessica Elgot and Anushka Asthana, for The Guardian on Monday 27th June 2016 22.06 Europe/London

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