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As Theresa May glides across the country, scrupulously avoiding contact with all but her most devoted supporters, she sweeps up support everywhere she goes. The less the voters see of her, it seems, the more they like the prime minister and if the Conservatives win by the predicted landslide next month, the victory will belong to her.
If Jeremy Corbyn leads Labour into disaster on June 8th, his enemies within the party are determined to make him own the defeat. To this end, most Labour MPs avoid direct criticism of the leader, although voters don’t hold back in blaming him for the party’s poor standing. The muted response from the right of the party to the leaked Labour manifesto, which is further to the left than they would like, reflects their determination not to offer Corbyn any excuse to avoid the blame for the impending catastrophe.
Some around the leader believe the polls are wrong and that if voters get a chance to consider the policies, Labour can still win the election. Everyone else in the party is braced for defeat and preparing for the leadership battle that will follow. Corbyn told BuzzFeed News this week that, unlike Ed Miliband in 2015 and Gordon Brown in 2010, he will not resign as leader if he loses the election.
“I was elected leader of this party and I’ll stay leader of this party,” he said, adding “Monsieur Zen is fine”.
Corbyn’s supporters fear that, if he steps down immediately, Labour’s rules would ensure that no left-wing candidate would get on the ballot to succeed him. Labour’s leader is elected by its members but the nomination process is controlled by the party’s MPs and MEPs, and candidates need the backing of at least 15 per cent of them to be nominated.
Corbyn’s ally and shadow chancellor John McDonnell has proposed an amendment to lower the threshold to 5 per cent but the proposed change needs the approval of Labour’s annual conference in the autumn. Under the left’s nightmare scenario, Corbyn would step down in June, only for the MPs to coalesce around a single candidate who, facing no other nominees, would be elected unopposed.
The candidate most often mentioned in this scenario is Yvette Cooper, one of three who lost out to Corbyn in his first leadership election in 2015. Corbyn’s support among the membership was strong enough last year for him to see off a challenge from Owen Smith after most of the Labour front bench resigned. But the leader’s critics are confident that many of his former supporters will be ready to abandon Corbyn after a general election defeat for which he will be forced to take responsibility.
For some on the right of the party, the question may not be whether they can reclaim Labour but if they want to. Brexit has shattered Labour’s traditional coalition but the resistance to a hard Brexit has also nourished new alliances. Labour’s liberal metropolitan wing has more in common with liberal, anti-Brexit Conservatives and pro-market Liberal Democrats than with working class voters in the northeast who voted to leave the EU.
At north London dinner parties and at high table in Oxford (which has become a latter-day Avignon for some of the exiled popes of the metropolitan elite), the chatter is all about a new political party of the progressive centre. Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France has encouraged such talk, and there would be no shortage of wealthy backers for a new movement which is business-friendly, pro-European and relaxed about ethnic and cultural diversity.
The great stumbling block in the path of any new party is Britain’s electoral system, which favours big, established parties. This may be less of a barrier than before, however, as party loyalties have loosened in recent decades and voters shift more easily between the parties. If Corbyn clings to the Labour leadership with the support of its members, dozens of MPs could resign the whip and form a new group, providing a centrist party with the critical mass it needs to be an effective force in parliament.