MPs divided over Corbyn as Eagle delays leadership challenge

Senior figures try to persuade leader to resign as a reported 60,000 new members join the party

Angela Eagle has delayed an expected leadership challenge to Jeremy Corbyn for at least 24 hours as Labour MPs who wish to depose Labour’s leader remain divided over how best to mount a challenge.

Around 60,000 new members have joined Labour in the past week, according to party sources. Both pro- and anti-Corbyn factions in the party have been active on social media trying to recruit members to vote in a contest to either support or oppose him.

Eagle, the former shadow business secretary, was expected to declare that she was going to run as a “unity candidate” at a 3pm press conference.

However, her associates claim she has decided to hold off because of the turmoil engulfing the Conservatives and to give more time for Labour MPs to pressurise Corbyn in to handing in his resignation.

Her decision to stand was also delayed when the former shadow welfare secretary Owen Smith collected enough nominations to put his name forward, following concerns that Eagle may not be able to win over the party in a ballot of members.

Brexit explained: the Labour leadership
Brexit explained: the Labour leadership

Corbyn responded by issuing a defiant statement, released via his Twitter feed. “Labour has the responsibility to give a lead … We need to bring people together, hold the government to account, oppose austerity and set out a path to exit that will protect jobs and incomes.

“I was elected leader of our party, for a new kind of politics, by 60% of Labour members and supporters. The need for that different approach now is greater than ever,” it said.

Sources close to his office said he addressed staff on Thursday, telling them he would carry on for the good of the party. As if to emphasise that it is business as usual, Corbyn attended a service on Thursday night, held at Westminster Abbey in central London, to commemorate the battle of the Somme.

His enemies in the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) still plan to challenge him, but they must still decide when – and who will be the favoured candidate.

A source close to Eagle insisted she would stand. “It is a delay, that is all,” the source said, adding that Eagle has the 51 nominations required.

Smith, the former shadow work and pensions secretary, has also collected 51 nominations. He is backed by some MPs who want to give the deputy leader, Tom Watson, and the chief whip, Rosie Winterton, more time to encourage the Labour leader to step down.

Some MPs are concerned that Eagle will face hostility from many members over her support for the Iraq war. The Chilcot report into the buildup, conduct and aftermath of the war is due to be published on Wednesday.

Labour MPs have been urged to contact police about threatening behaviour amid reports that the attempted coup against Corbyn has resulted in some politicians receiving death threats.

In an email, the PLP’s director of political services, Sarah Mulholland, writes: “It is clear that some of our MPs are currently experiencing abuse and threats. As per the security briefings, this information should be passed to the police immediately.”

She says the party wants to monitor the situation and asks MPs to pass information on. In the note, passed to the Guardian, she acknowledges that many Labour MPs are facing a challenging time.

Vicky Foxcroft, the MP for Lewisham Deptford, revealed that she had been threatened with violence if she refused to back Corbyn; Lisa Nandy said that colleagues had been bullied and harassed; while John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and staunch Corbyn ally, responded to complaints by urging supporters not to protest outside MPs’ offices.

Senior figures in the party are still trying to persuade Corbyn to resign, but they are struggling to organise a meeting with the besieged leader. Some say his advisers are deliberately keeping him away from his critics in the PLP.

One pro-Smith MP said there should be no rush to challenge Corbyn. “We have to give them some more time; if Angela challenges him and we lose, it could split the party permanently. There is no need for a challenge to happen today, or even this week. It’s self-interest. That’s what has motivated people to come out and back Owen,” the MP said.

The MP added that there was no consensus in the PLP about a single candidate to back.

A former shadow cabinet minister said they believed a delay was crucial in persuading Corbyn to stand down. “Today is clearly not the day, with the news about Boris. There’s huge weight behind the idea in the PLP that waiting is now the best thing. There’s still an urgency, but it’s a question of strategy and how to best effect him standing down.”

Watson has said he will not challenge Corbyn himself, but sources indicated he would stand if the party was leaderless.

Eagle was seen as a frontrunner alongside Watson before he ended speculation by saying he would not challenge Corbyn directly. At that point, a large number of MPs seemed to be happy with either of the two candidates.

“Angela has support from all wings of the party to be a strong unity candidate. There is a time for calm and careful thinking for the sake of the country and our party. The party needs to unite – late-night egos on the terrace of the Commons are not the way forward,” said a politician backing Eagle.

Corbyn’s supporters argue that, as the incumbent, he would automatically be on the ballot paper in the event of a challenge, with the prospect he could again mobilise the grassroots activists who propelled him to the leadership last year.

If he resigned, however, allies such as McDonnell might struggle to get the nominations they need to enter the leadership race.

There were further calls for Corbyn to quit, with a letter signed by 540 Labour councillors posted on the LabourList website saying he was “unable to command the confidence of the whole party, nor of many traditional Labour supporters we speak with on the doorstep”.

In a further indication of the mayhem within Labour ranks, MP Rob Marris resigned from his role in the shadow Treasury team during the committee stage hearings on the finance bill.

Meanwhile, the party’s national executive committee is expected to meet soon to vote on whether Corbyn ought to be placed on the ballot automatically or if he will have to collect the nominations of MPs.

Corbyn is expected to spend Friday at the Somme battlefield in northern France.


Jessica Elgot, Anushka Asthana and Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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