Here we go. After over a year of speculation about a Labour party split, the departure of Labour moderates appears imminent. Over the weekend, speculation mounted that this will be the week a number of Labour MPs quit the party. Now a press conference has been scheduled for this morning on the ‘future of British politics’. Labour sources are adamant that things are about to move and the expectation is that the press conference will see those MPs present announce that they are quitting the party.
Those thought to be on the verge of quitting – Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna – are refusing to comment. Other Labour MPs thought to be considering their options include Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker and Luciana Berger. This group have grown increasingly fed up with Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to tackle anti-Semitism along with the Leader’s Office refusal to call for a second referendum. There had been a view that it was worth sticking with Corbyn in order to stop Brexit but given that this now looks unlikely, that incentive has gone. This combined with the continued threat of deselection has pushed MPs to finally make a decision.
It remains unclear whether a new party will be revealed alongside any departures. This group – along with some Labour MPs who have already left and potentially a handful of pro-Remain Tory MPs – could go on to unite around a common set of values in the shape of a new party. There are figures among them who believe that thanks to Corbyn there is now a gap in the market for an anti-racist pro-European liberal party. A number of the MPs involved hope that this will be the beginning of a grand realignment of politics. Both Umunna and Leslie have been involved in discussions on this in recent months.
But will the departure of a few Blairite MPs really be such a blow to Corbyn? While the number is expected to small, it’s telling that the Labour leader’s allies appear to be very rattled this time around. As rumours began to circulate over the weekend, vocal Corbyn supporters and former Corbyn advisers started to tweet lists of the MPs they are hoping to go:
In recent days there has been an effort – be it a not particularly friendly one – by leading Labour figures to try and deter Labour moderates from jumping ship. John McDonnell responded to a move to deselect Luciana Berger by not denouncing it – but insisting it was on Berger to make clear that she had no plans to quit Labour and would not be involved in a new party. Meanwhile, a pledge has been doing the rounds online which asks Labour members (including MPs) to ‘pledge to work for the achievement of a Labour-led government, under whatever leadership members elect’. McDonnell used an appearance on Marr to say he had signed that pledge – wavering Labour MPs see it as an attempt to bounce them into staying put.
Figures in the Leader’s Office are rattled by the idea of mass resignations. Although – as Nick Cohen details in the Spectator cover piece – a maximum of around eight MPs are thought to be on the brink of quitting, there are concerns that it could act as a tipping point for more resignations rather than a spring clean which makes way for new loyal MPs. So far the Labour MPs who have resigned the whip over anti-Semitism have had other factors that have clouded their departure – harassment allegations or Brexit rebellions – which made it easier for Team Corbyn to dismiss. If a series of MPs quit simply because they don’t believe Jeremy Corbyn is fit to be Prime Minister, it will send a negative message to the swing voters Labour must win over to secure a majority in any coming election.