Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, is urging colleagues to step back from the brink in challenging Jeremy Corbyn, warning that a leadership election in which the incumbent stands again could cause untold damage to the party.
Watson is seeking to organise a meeting with Corbyn’s closest advisers to try to agree a negotiated settlement that would see the Labour leader step down voluntarily, thus avoiding an acrimonious and drawn-out battle.
Labour MPs remain divided over whether Angela Eagle, the recently resigned shadow business secretary, should formally trigger a leadership challenge on Monday or if another candidate, such as Owen Smith, would be a better option.
Eagle’s closest allies say that she is a unity candidate who would pull the party together. But supporters of Smith, the shadow pensions secretary until he stepped down on Monday, have also been collecting nominations, and think he would have a better chance than Eagle because his politics are further to the left and because he did not vote on the invasion of Iraq in 2003, having not been an MP at the time.
MPs on all sides of the party were heeding Watson’s call for calm over the weekend as they consider how best to launch a challenge.
A poll of Labour members by the Times suggested that while Eagle would have a better chance against Corbyn compared with other potential candidates such as Watson or Dan Jarvis, the current leader would still win in a one-to-one contest.
One Labour MP said there was still hope that Corbyn would go voluntarily, but others were less patient. Another said he was not optimistic about Watson’s chances: “I don’t think Jeremy will go voluntarily. He has stubbornness in his DNA. And he could end up destroying the Labour party.”
Allies of Eagle expect her to trigger a contest as early as Monday if Watson is unable to persuade Corbyn to quit.
Under Labour rules, a leadership election is triggered if a challenger wins support of 20% of the party’s MPs and MEPs, which means 51 names are required. The party’s members, affiliated supporters in trade unions, and registered supporters then decide the matter with a vote.
Corbyn lost a confidence vote among Labour MPs this week by a wide margin and has seen dozens of frontbench resignations, with a number of positions still left vacant.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and Corbyn’s chief ally, said on Friday he expected that Labour MPs would make their move “over the next few days”. Answering questions following a speech in London, McDonnell said Corbyn would definitely stand again for the leadership.
“I’m saying to all Labour MPs now, whatever your views now, calm down,” McDonnell said. “If there is to be a Labour leadership election, let’s do that in a comradely, amicable fashion, argue the points of difference on policy and then come together and unite behind the democratic decision of our members.”
It remains to be seen whether a Labour membership that overwhelmingly elected Corbyn nine months ago has changed its mind, particularly with the arrival of 60,000 new members since last week’s referendum vote to leave the EU.
One example of a possible change came in a poll of members of the Unite union carried out by Election Data YouGov over the past three days. While the union still officially backs Corbyn – its general secretary, Len McCluskey, has said rebel MPs are betraying the party – the poll, which was shown exclusively to the Guardian, found that almost half of members believe Corbyn should step down immediately.
Of all Unite members polled, 49% said this should happen, with even 48% of those who said they voted Labour in 2015 agreeing. If there was a new leadership election, 44% of the Labour backers would oppose Corbyn, against 43% who would support him, the survey found.
The poll has a relatively low sample of 775, but makes for difficult reading for the Corbyn camp. Of Labour voters, 61% think Corbyn is doing badly in the job, and only 20% of them think he will ever become prime minister.
Amid the confusion, McDonnell used his speech to try and present a coherent Labour plan for a post-Brexit future, calling for the UK to remain in the EU single market and for the financial services industry to keep its privileged “passported” trading status.
However, the shadow chancellor appeared to dismiss the idea of the party seeking to block departure from the EU, saying: “The people have spoken and their decision must be respected.”
He also predicted that Brexit would end unrestricted travel and employment for EU nationals in the UK. “Let’s be absolutely clear on the immigration issue,” McDonnell said. “If Britain leaves the European Union, the free movement of people, of labour, will then come to an end.”
In the interim, McDonnell said, Labour needed to “consult with the British people on the nature of the relationship we have with regard to the free movement of people”.
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