3 May 2016

Jeremy Corbyn’s accidental new electoral test

Jeremy Corbyn this morning said: “We’re not going to lose seats, we’re looking to gain seats where we can.”

He didn’t mean to say that. It wasn’t a pre-agreed change of tack in Labour’s approach to the local elections. The Party still privately expects to lose seats.

One Corbyn ally says the leader was trying to do what party leaders normally do on the eve of elections and talk up the cause. In the process he accidentally gifted his internal opponents a new and challenging benchmark for Thursday’s performance.

Jeremy Corbyn also had to answer questions about his chances of keeping his job. He insisted he would be staying put.

Depending on who you chat to on the Labour benches you might think he’s right to think that. Quite a few Labour MPs I chatted to today are convinced that their colleagues will not mount a coup against the leader. Such talk has already been pushed back to the post-referendum period as so many of the most eager Corbyn critics are also the ones who care most about the EU referendum.

You can still find some Labour MPs saying that they should mount a challenge against Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum even if it looks like he would defend his position and probably win at least as big a majority as last year all over again. One MP said: “I think it’s gone beyond that, some of us feel morally something has to be done … we couldn’t look back 10 to 15 years down the line and think we did nothing, there’s a sense of duty creeping up on people.”

On the whole though I find a sense of fear creeping up Labour MPs, fear that they could entrench Jeremy Corbyn if they challenge him. Better to hope the “project fails on its own terms” or something else turns up. One MP said: “He’ll be here for another 2 years, I’m sure of it.” Others talk of waiting for John McDonnell to mount a gentle coup and lift the burdens of office off his old friend and ally before trying to plant them on his own shoulders.

If Labour wins London on Thursday but goes backwards in terms of net council seats virtually everywhere else, where does Mr Corbyn go to make sure he can focus attention on his gains not his losses in a celebratory photo opportunity?

There’s no sign that Sadiq Khan, if he were to win, is ready to share to limelight with his party leader. The two men have been seen side by side only twice in the campaign, on both occasions around Jeremy Corbyn’s home patch of Islington. There are persistent suggestions that Mr Corbyn’s office would’ve liked more such pictures but have been turned down. There’s no indication Mr Khan will change his tune if he were to win.

To add to Jeremy Corbyn’s discomforts, the Home Affairs Select Committee has an invitation winging its way to his door to give evidence to their inquiry on anti-semitism. They’ve also asked David Cameron (and Ken Livingstone). But if Jeremy Corbyn was hoping a refusal from David Cameron gives him cover to reject the slightly unorthodox invitation (party leaders don’t regularly go to select committees, with the exception of the PM’s appearances in front of the Liaison Committee) he will be disappointed. I hear that the Committee Chair, MP Keith Vaz, sounded out No. 10 before issuing the public invitation and got an encouraging response. Mr Corbyn’s office may be wishing he’d extended the same courtesy to them.

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