Keir Starmer’s team insisted they were “relaxed” about the potential for a backlash after the Batley and Spen byelection on Thursday night, as counting got under way.
Scores of MPs descended on the Yorkshire constituency on a sunny day to canvass for Kim Leadbeater, the sister of murdered MP Jo Cox, as senior party figures reported a modest shift towards Labour in recent days.
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner was among those knocking on doors, after being forced to deny any immediate plans to challenge Starmer for the leadership.
Even before polling opened in Batley, some Labour MPs were feverishly discussing what might happen if the party were to lose the seat, with some even suggesting the leader should resign – but a Starmer aide said: “He’s not going anywhere.”
The Labour leader is expected to come out fighting after the byelection, with a string of public appearances and policy announcements. “We know we have work to do,” said a party source.
The Guardian understands that allies of Rayner did make tentative approaches to potential supporters after May’s Hartlepool byelection, which Labour lost, and believed at the time they could have mustered the 40 MPs necessary to launch a challenge.
But they insist she does not want to stand now, preferring to try to shape Labour policy, and they are concerned about the risk to her reputation if she wields the knife against a sitting leader.
Responding to reports that she is preparing to overthrow Starmer, who has only been in post for just over a year, Labour’s deputy leader tweeted it was “news to me”.
Senior sources at the Unite trade union also denied they had had any approach from potential leadership candidates, insisting the only race they were focused on was the one to succeed its chief, Len McCluskey.
An aide to Rayner said: “Angela is focused entirely on her jobs. She has set out radical economic policy on the future of work and has led the way hammering [former health secretary Matt] Hancock and the government over private emails, dodgy contracts and sleaze.
“She is also perfectly capable of speaking for herself and doesn’t need anyone to claim to speak for her.”
However, underlining the continuing bad blood between the deputy leader and Starmer, Rayner’s supporters believe the stories are being promulgated by outriders of the Labour leader, hoping to undermine her by making her appear disloyal.
MPs on the left of the party in particular have become increasingly despairing about Labour’s direction and prospects of winning the next general election under Starmer.
However, his backers in the parliamentary party are urging colleagues to keep calm and give him a chance to make his case to voters over the summer.
The Batley and Spen byelection is an early test for Labour’s new election coordinator, Shabana Mahmood, who only took on the role in May.
The historic loss of Hartlepool in May was followed by a standoff in which Starmer removed Rayner from her posts as party chair and national elections coordinator, but she dug her heels in and emerged with several new job titles, including shadow secretary of state for the future of work.