Monday 19 March 2018

Labour leader faces coup as Left bids to overturn vote

Shadow attorney general Karl Turner, who has said he has resigned 'with a very heavy heart'. Photo: PA
Shadow attorney general Karl Turner, who has said he has resigned 'with a very heavy heart'. Photo: PA

Gavin Cordon

UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was last night facing a leadership coup as the Left attempted to unite to overturn Britain's exit from the European Union.

Eleven members of the Labour shadow cabinet left office yesterday amid a series of staggered resignations and demands that Mr Corbyn make way for a pro-EU candidate who can fight against the British public's demand for Brexit.

Tom Watson, the deputy Labour leader, will today hold crisis talks with Mr Corbyn, who is being propped up by the trade unions despite losing the backing of most Labour MPs.

Shadow attorney general Karl Turner became the 11th senior figure to announce he could no longer work with the Labour leader following criticism of Mr Corbyn's "lacklustre" anti-Brexit campaign.

The party's influential deputy leader Mr Watson said he is to hold emergency talks with Mr Corbyn today to "discuss the way forward" after 11 members of the shadow cabinet announced they were resigning - with more expected to follow.

In a statement, Mr Watson said he was "saddened" so many colleagues felt unable to carry on and "deeply disappointed" at the sacking of shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn which triggered the walkout.

He said: "My single focus is to hold the Labour Party together in very turbulent times. The nation needs an effective opposition, particularly as the current leadership of the country is so lamentable.

"It's very clear to me that we are heading for an early general election and the Labour Party must be ready to form a government. There's much work to do. I will be meeting Jeremy Corbyn [this morning] to discuss the way forward."

As Mr Watson returned from the Glastonbury Festival to deal with the crisis, allies of the Labour leader insisted he had no intention of quitting - angrily accusing the rebels of plotting for months to get rid of him.

A series of senior trade unionists on Labour's ruling national executive committee rallied in support of Mr Corbyn - including Unite leader Len McCluskey and Dave Ward of the Communication Workers Union.

There was also support from shadow home secretary Andy Burnham who said he had no intention of taking part in a coup against the Labour leader.

However, the rebels warned Mr Corbyn would be unable to form a new shadow team - with Labour MPs unwilling to serve under his leadership - if he tries to struggle on.

The Labour shadow cabinet departures began at 1.13am yesterday morning when it emerged Mr Corbyn had sacked his shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn after reports in the media he was leading a coup.

Alarmed by Mr Benn's sacking, some of the most senior figures in the party agreed to stagger resignations throughout the day in an attempt to unseat the Labour leader by exposing his lack of support.

Before 9am Heidi Alexander, the shadow health secretary, had released a resignation letter saying Mr Corbyn did not have "the capacity to shape the answers our country is demanding".

Mr Benn explained his decision shortly afterwards, telling BBC One's 'The Andrew Marr Show': "He's a good and decent man but he is not a leader."

By 7.30pm, nine more ministers had resigned, with more expected overnight and today.

One former member of Mr Corbyn's shadow cabinet who resigned yesterday said the party needed an "avowedly pro-EU" leader who could push to keep Britain as close to Europe as possible during exit negotiations.

Sources said that they expect a general election before the end of the year and that they want a leader in place who will stand on a pro-EU manifesto.

"People have started to say that we can go into the next election as an avowedly pro-EU party," the former frontbencher told 'The Daily Telegraph'.

"I would want someone who is very much-pro European, who has a vision for us being very much engaged in Europe, but addresses concerns that are clearly there such as immigration."

Sources said that Mr Corbyn will today refuse to step down and will instead try and make public a planned secret vote on his future so that voters can see which MPs are trying to unseat him. It is thought that the Parliamentary Labour Party is hoping to select a new leader who could seek to negotiate a new British-EU deal in conjunction with sympathetic European leaders and the heads of other UK regions.

Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister, said a second referendum on the UK's membership of the EU should not be ruled out because Britain has become "deeply divided" after Thursday's referendum vote.

Across Europe, there were growing signs that a new deal may ultimately be offered.

Peter Altmaier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, said that British politicians "should have the possibility to reconsider the consequences of an exit" as these begin to emerge. He later clarified that the validity of the result was not in doubt and said "we respect the decision of the British people".

The Czech government called for the removal of Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU President, following another day of aggressive anti-British briefings from the European Commission. The EU met for the first time without Britain yesterday and sources said that no negotiations would take place until Britain had formally requested to leave the bloc.

Last night, Mr Corbyn faced accusations that he sabotaged the campaign to keep Britain in the EU after leaked emails revealed Labour frustration with his apparent uninterest.

The Labour leader's office deleted lines referring to immigration and the EU in speeches, and attempted to block a letter backed by 200 MPs, according to the messages.

Frustration with Mr Corbyn's failure to fully engage in the campaign is also detailed, with one email showing the bemusement of some involved as one asks: "What is going on here?"

The emails, which were shown to the BBC, reveal the tensions in Labour's EU campaign as it became clear that chunks of the party's normal support base were backing Brexit.

A poll on voting day suggested as many as one in three Labour supporters backed leaving the EU as areas including Hartlepool, Sheffield and Birmingham voted for Brexit.

An email from the leader's office reportedly said that Seumas Milne, Mr Corbyn's director of strategy and communications, was believed to be behind the reluctance towards the pro-EU campaign.

One message discussing the leader's EU speeches said that changes were made because of the "hand of Seumas", adding: "If he can't kill it, he will water it down so much to hope nobody notices it."

The Labour leader's "lacklustre" involvement in the Remain campaign was cited by many who resigned yesterday. During the campaign, Mr Corbyn rated his passion for staying in the EU at "seven, or seven and a half" out of 10.

Mr Corbyn and his team repeatedly defended his performance during the referendum campaign, with supporters insisting he had gone through a "journey" to back staying in the EU.

He defended his campaign during TV appearances on Friday, saying: "A lot of the message that has come back from this is that many communities are fed up with cuts, they are fed up with economic dislocation and feel very angry at the way they have been betrayed and marginalised by successive governments in very poor areas of the country." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Q&A: Labour rebels plan ‘a party within a party'

What is the idea?

The priority for Labour rebels is to unseat Jeremy Corbyn, getting someone new in time for a general election that could be called later this year.

However, the way they plan to do that – with a “no confidence” vote on Tuesday – is not binding, leaving it up to Mr Corbyn to decide whether he will step down.

Given Corbyn allies have indicated he will stay put and replace ministers who have resigned, there are now plans for the moderates to effectively create a “party within a party”.

How would it work?

The vehicle for the move would be the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), which is made up only of Labour MPs – the vast majority of whom did not vote for Mr Corbyn as leader.

The idea is for the PLP to elect a new leader, create its own shadow cabinet and effectively begin operating as a distinct Labour Party totally separate from Mr Corbyn.

Crucially, Labour rebels believe they would have control of “short money”, the public funding given to political parties for organisation.

What is in it for the rebels?

The move would rob Mr Corbyn’s team of funds, make clear he lacks the support of MPs and set out a moderate vision that they believe would appeal to floating voters.

The possibility of a snap general election after the Tories pick a new leader has focused minds and forced MPs to think about drastic measures to change the party and save their seats.

Being able to make absolutely clear to the electorate that Mr Corbyn does not speak for Labour and lay out an alternative prospectus would, some believe, help win voters.

“The position is to stop the Labour Party collapsing at the next election. That is the only goal. The EU referendum was a game-changer,” one MP told The Daily Telegraph.

Will it actually happen?

For now, the plan is merely a backup and does not have support from all. Many Labour rebels believe it is untenable for Mr Corbyn to stay as leader when a majority of MPs have made clear he does not have their confidence.

Should he not go of his own accord, there is another means of triggering a leadership race – getting the signatures of 51 Labour MPs and MEPs supporting a single candidate. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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