Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the Unite union, met Corbyn and his deputy leader, Tom Watson, on Tuesday in what some Corbyn loyalists hope will be the first step towards a brokered deal – involving MPs, unions and the party’s national executive committee – that could ensure a dignified exit for the embattled leader.
One source involved in the discussions said the process could result in Corbyn stepping aside before a 2020 general election, but that there could be no pre-conditions. “The bottom line is, there can be no gun to Jeremy’s head,” one shadow cabinet source said.
The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, or her predecessor, Brendan Barber, are seen as potential chairs for the negotiations, which are aimed at averting an immediate challenge to Corbyn’s leadership and “cooling the temperature”. The role is likened by some senior party figures to that of General John de Chastelain, who oversaw the disarmament process in Northern Ireland.
The placing of limits on the power of Corbyn’s close ally John McDonnell to interfere in other shadow ministers’ policy areas is likely to be one element of any deal. “You would have to McDonnell-proof a future shadow cabinet,” one shadow minister said.
Andy Burnham, the shadow home secretary, won agreement at Tuesday’s shadow cabinet for a process of formal discussions. He stressed at the meeting that the party should respect Corbyn’s mandate.
Corbyn is adamant that he will not step down and believes anyone who wants to challenge his leadership should do so through the proper process. He is understood, however, to be open to listening to concerns about policy making and management of the party.
Labour MPs say his position is untenable without the support of the parliamentary party, and they would be unlikely to join any talks without the prospect of Corbyn handing over to another leader before the next general election.
Corbyn’s team announced the new lineup for the shadow cabinet on Tuesday, with some members doubling up portfolios to deal with the mass resignations that hit the party after the EU referendum result.
Jon Trickett, a close Corbyn ally, will add shadow business secretary to his existing job of campaigns and elections chair; and Dave Anderson will be shadow Northern Ireland and Scotland secretary, after Labour’s one Scottish MP, Ian Murray, resigned.
Watson told MPs on Monday that he had informed Corbyn it was not enough to have a mandate from the party membership, which voted overwhelmingly for him nine months ago.
Angela Eagle, the former shadow business secretary, is still considering a challenge to Corbyn’s leadership, as is the former shadow work and pensions secretary Owen Smith, with the two unable to agree who would be best-placed to beat him.
But Burnham and others, including Watson, believe a leadership race would destabilise and risk splitting the party amid bitter recriminations between the leadership team – backed by the grassroots membership – and most of the party’s MPs.
One shadow cabinet source said Burnham had tried to build support for a more radical deal last week that could have involved the leftwing Norwich South MP Clive Lewis replacing Corbyn, who has lost the confidence of more than 80% of his MPs. Ed Miliband is understood to have pressed Lewis to stand.
But the mood changed over the weekend, as the prospect of a snap general election receded, with leading candidates in the Conservative leadership contest saying they would not immediately seek their own mandate from the electorate.
McCluskey first held lengthy talks with Watson, who urged Corbyn on Monday to consider his position. The union chief then met Corbyn, whom he has repeatedly backed to stay.
Sources said McCluskey’s role was to see whether there could be any common ground between Corbyn and the parliamentary party.
Eagle stated publicly on Monday for the first time that she was prepared to break the impasse at the top of Labour by directly challenging Corbyn.
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