In an extraordinary day of bloodletting, Angela Eagle, who recently resigned as shadow business secretary, announced her bid to topple Corbyn, accusing him of failing to fulfil “his first and foremost duty” of holding ministers to account and being ready for government.
With the Labour party closer to splitting than at any point since the formation of the SDP in 1981, Eagle said she would explain her “vision for the country and the difference a strong Labour party can make” on Monday and would be touring TV studios on Sunday.
The announcement followed the decision by Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, to end negotiations with the unions backing the Labour leader, claiming that Corbyn had torpedoed progress by declaring his intention to stay on as leader “come what may”.
Senior Labour sources claimed the talks had been making progress about the timing of Corbyn’s departure until that point. Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, whose union is Labour’s biggest donor, responded to Watson’s intervention by denouncing the decision to end the talks as an “act of sabotage fraught with peril for the future of the Labour party”.
McCluskey, who described Watson’s manoeuvrings as disingenuous, warned MPs against any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper, claiming that such a move would result in a “lasting division in the party … I made it absolutely clear from the outset of these discussions that Jeremy Corbyn’s resignation as the leader was not on the agenda. Mr Watson knew that, and it is entirely wrong to suggest that any public statement by Jeremy represented any change in the situation.
“Should there have to be a leadership election, I must warn that any attempts to keep Jeremy Corbyn, elected just 10 months ago with an enormous mandate, off the ballot paper by legal means risks a lasting division in the party.”
It is understood that Labour’s national executive committee will convene a special meeting on Tuesday to rule on whether Corbyn, who has very limited support in parliament, needs to have the support of 51 MPs to get on the ballot paper alongside Eagle and any other contenders. The Labour party has taken legal advice, which indicates that he will need to find the nominees, in line with the precedent set in 1988 when Neil Kinnock was challenged by Tony Benn.
Also set to be discussed is the timing of a cut-off after which newly signed members will not be eligible to vote on the leadership and the arrangements for the “registered supporters” deal under which any member of the public could pay £3 to have a vote.
A former shadow cabinet minister said that senior figures were determined to avoid the chaos of last year’s election, during which members of other political parties were found to have tried to distort the result.
It is understood that Owen Smith, who recently resigned as shadow welfare secretary, is likely to launch his own bid for the leadership in the coming days, although it is expected that only one of Eagle and Smith will fight Corbyn if he is in the contest.
Speaking at the annual Durham miners’ gala, Corbyn said he had felt no pressure during recent weeks, but he adapted his planned speech, in which he was due to claim that he was looking forward to returning as a Labour prime minister. Corbyn said instead: “I consider it the duty of whoever holds the office of leader of the Labour party to be at the Durham miners’ gala. And so we will all be here together when we have elected a Labour government in Britain.”
A spokesman for Corbyn responded to Saturday’s developments by attacking Watson and pointing out that Eagle’s announcement had come just an hour after the deputy leader’s statement.
Asked if he was suggesting a conspiracy, the spokesman declined to comment further. “Jeremy Corbyn has reached out to Labour MPs and made clear he wants to work with them to carry out his role as elected leader of the party,” he said. “Jeremy regards the talks with trade union leaders as a vehicle to bring people together and it is disappointing that some have walked away from them.”
He said Corbyn was committed to “fulfilling all his responsibilities as democratically elected leader and will not betray the hundreds of thousands of people who elected him for a different direction for the Labour party and a different kind of politics.” He added: “He will remain leader of the Labour party and will contest any leadership challenge if one is mounted.”
Smith issued a statement claiming that cabals on the left and right of the party appeared intent on destroying Labour. “This is the greatest crisis facing Labour in generations and it comes at a time when our country is in desperate need of a united Labour party to speak for Britain,” he said.
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