Speaking in an interview on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show, Corbyn said he was disappointed that Angela Eagle, the former shadow business secretary, had decided to challenge him – but he ruled out stepping down.
Corbyn sidestepped a question about whether he thought he would be able to get the 51 signatures from MPs and MEPs that his opponents claim he would need to be a candidate in the contest.
He said he had not seen the legal advice that Iain McNicol, Labour’s general secretary, had reportedly received saying that as a sitting leader Corbyn would need 51 names (the backing of 20% of MPs and MEPs).
Corbyn said that if the party’s national executive committee tried to keep him off the ballot, he would challenge that. He indicated he had received his own legal advice saying he should be on the ballot automatically.
“I’m expecting to be on the ballot paper because the rules of the party indicated that the existing leader, if challenged, should be on the ballot paper anyway,” he said.
When it was put to him that party officials disagreed, he replied: “I will challenge that if that is the view that they take … I would just say to anyone in the party to think for a moment: is it really right that the members of the party should be denied a choice in this? Half a million people are members of the party because they want the party to succeed.”
Asked whether he had taken his own legal advice, Corbyn said: “I have taken much soundings from lawyers.” And those lawyers had told him he would be on the ballot, he said.
Asked whether he would be able to get the support of 51 MPs and MEPs if he had to, he replied: “You’d be surprised how much support there is out there. I was elected a year ago with a very large majority and a very large mandate.”
In a separate interview with ITV’s Peston on Sunday, Eagle said she thought Corbyn would need to get fresh nominations to stand again. But she accepted this would be a matter to be decided by the party’s national executive committee.
The NEC, which is expected to meet on Tuesday to discuss the issue, is roughly split between Corbynites and non-Corbynites, making it hard to predict what it might decide. Unite, Labour’s biggest union donor, has hinted that it could stop backing the party if Corbyn is excluded from the contest.
At a private meeting of the parliamentary Labour party on Monday, the former leader Neil Kinnock said he had to get nominations in 1988 when he was challenged by Tony Benn, because as a sitting leader he did not get an automatic place on the ballot.
Corbyn said the system was different then. In 1988 the party was using an electoral college to elect a leader. The leader was now chosen by a one-member, one-vote system, he said.
In the interview, Corbyn also spoke about his decision two weeks ago to sack Hilary Benn as shadow foreign secretary, which had triggered dozens of frontbench resignations. He said he had called Benn, and Benn had confirmed to him that he was collecting signatures for a mass shadow cabinet resignation. “I did not think that was a particularly collegiate thing to do,” said Corbyn.
When it was put to him that he could not continue without the support of colleagues in parliament, Corbyn said he was appealing to MPs to think of what the members wanted. They should be uniting to exploit the disarray in the Conservative party, he said.
Insisting that he was determined to stay on, Corbyn appeared to rule out agreeing to stand down at some point in the future – a concession that might have been enough to avert a leadership challenge. “I would be irresponsible if I walked away from a mandate that I was given,” he said.
He denied he had come close to resigning within the last fortnight because the stress had been getting to him. “You read too many newspapers,” he told Marr. “There’s not wobbles. There’s no stress. There’s not depression.” Real stress was being unable to feed your children because you were poor, he said.
He condemned the abuse being directed at anti-Corbyn MPs online by some of his supporters. “Nobody does vile abuse in my name with my approval or my support,” he said. “I’ve made it very clear that debates should be polite.”
And he denied he had told the Labour MP Owen Smith in a recent conversation that he would rather split the Labour party than stand down. He had had a “philosophical discussion” with Smith, he said, but he had not said the words attributed to him.
He suggested Labour MPs would be given a free vote when the House of Commons debates Trident renewal on Monday 18 July. And he indicated that he would back a proposed amendment from the Conservative MP David Davis, the SNP MP Alex Salmond and others, which may be put to a vote this week, accusing the former prime minister Tony Blair of being in contempt of parliament for having misled MPs about Iraq.
This article was written by Andrew Sparrow, for theguardian.com on Sunday 10th July 2016 13.34 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010