- Opposition leader’s team decimated as dozens walk out
- EU vote ‘a test of leadership and he failed it,’ Hodge says
Labour Party lawmakers are voting in a ballot of no-confidence in their leader Jeremy Corbyn after he rejected calls to resign, as the aftershocks of the Brexit referendum continue to wreak havoc across the U.K.’s political landscape.
At a fractious party meeting late on Monday, lawmaker after lawmaker urged Corbyn to quit, with only a few offering words of support. More than 40 members of his team, including about two-thirds of the shadow cabinet, have resigned since Sunday. Margaret Hodge, one of the sponsors of the no-confidence motion, described the reaction of members of Parliament at the meeting as “unprecedented.”
“I couldn’t believe the strength of feeling, the overwhelming rejection of Jeremy as our leader,” Hodge said Tuesday in a BBC Radio interview. “And the pleading with him that he should consider his position and go with dignity. No one individual is greater than the party. I think the referendum was a test of leadership and he failed it.”
The backlash follows Thursday’s stunning vote to quit the European Union. Many of those who resigned have criticized their leader for running a lackluster campaign to remain in the bloc. They fear Corbyn lacks the powers of persuasion needed to win a general election that could happen sooner than planned after Prime Minister David Cameron resigned in the wake of the referendum result.
“The writing on the wall is 8 meters high and if he can’t see it, he needs to go to Specsavers,” Chris Bryant, who resigned from Corbyn’s team on Sunday, told reporters, referring to a chain of opticians. “This is a battle for the soul of the Labour Party.”
Another lawmaker, Ian Austin, said the party faces “an existential threat” because of Corbyn and that criticisms were delivered by more than just the “usual suspects.”
Corbyn refused to quit, and after leaving the meeting he headed straight to the square outside the Houses of Parliament to address hundreds of supporters who had gathered there for a grassroots rally entitled “Keep Corbyn, Build our Movement.”
“We don’t need the blame culture, we need the unite culture of working together,” Corbyn said to loud cheers from the crowd, who moments earlier had been chanting his name.
Labour’s 229 MPs have until 4 p.m. on Tuesday to vote on the no-confidence motion, with the results due to be announced soon after. The vote is only advisory and won’t immediately unseat Corbyn, who was elected last year with landslide support among party members outside the legislature. Standing by Corbyn is Diane Abbott, a long-time ally newly promoted to be his health spokeswoman.
“I think it’s really sad at a point of great crisis for the nation that colleagues have chosen to stage a three-ring circus,” Abbott said Tuesday in a BBC Radio interview. “Fleet Street and Labour MPs at Westminster do not choose the leader of the Labour Party, and the way to resolve this is to stage a leadership election” rather than a confidence vote.
A Labour leadership election can only be triggered if Corbyn resigns or if 20 percent of the party’s lawmakers put their names to a letter backing a rival. The scale of the revolt against him suggests that the anti-Corbyn camp has enough support in Parliament to reach that figure.
"I am very concerned that Jeremy Corbyn has no plan to reunite the Labour movement, no plan to respond to the deep and serious issues the referendum has thrown up, and no plan for a looming general election," Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper, who was defeated by Corbyn in last year’s leadership election, said in a speech in London Tuesday. Taking questions afterward, she said she didn’t rule out running for leader again.
But if Corbyn is one of the candidates in any new leadership election, then party members will have the final word. Last year, almost 60 percent of them backed Corbyn, a serial rebel who had been at the left-wing fringes of the party for more than three decades. The leader’s office said he will stand if a contest is triggered.
“I think it’s disgusting,” Diana Blatton, 74, a Corbyn supporter and retired lecturer who lives in London, said in an interview at the rally. “The traitors have been lurking around ever since he was elected and they’ve just waited for an opportunity and feel this is an opportunity they can seize. They’re totally ignoring what the vast membership of the Labour Party want.”
The mass exodus from Corbyn’s team began in the early hours of Sunday when the opposition leader sacked his foreign-affairs spokesman, Hilary Benn. By late Monday, Corbyn had filled some of the gaps, but about 10 positions in his shadow cabinet remained vacant.
Corbyn’s troubles have provided some relief for Cameron, who announced his own resignation on Friday after the failure of his “Remain” campaign. His successor as Tory party chief and prime minister is due to be chosen by early September.
After welcoming to Parliament a new Labour lawmaker, Rosena Allin-Khan, on Monday, the premier advised her to “keep her mobile phone on.”
“She might be in the shadow cabinet by the end of the day,” Cameron said. “And I thought I was having a bad day.”