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The “f***ing useless coup”. Labour must find a third way between Corbyn and PLP.

“AS plotters, they were f****** useless”, was shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s verdict on the conduct of the “moderate” Labour MPs who tried to organise what is now widely referred to as the #chickencoup against their leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Such is the parliamentary language we are becoming used to in the social media age, but it’s difficult to disagree with his assessment.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson put her own gloss on it, telling the Westminster Parliamentary Lobby “Labour is still fumbling for its flies while the Tories are enjoying their post-coital cigarette after removing our massive Johnson”. ITV Political Editor Robert Peston offered to marry Ms Davidson on the strength of this speech alone, though he may find she’s taken.

But the bigger question is who exactly is being shafted by the Tories as they puff on the fag of conquest? Well, despite Mrs May’s promise to help the underprivileged, quite a lot of people: immigrants, benefit claimants, people with email accounts (snoopers’ charter). Brexit means Brexit but it also means an intensification of Mr Cameron’s tough love austerity as the new PM grapples with the fallout of the kind of economic crisis Unionists forecast would hit Scotland after independence.

I wouldn’t reckon on the chances of Scotland’s finances remaining untouched by the austere new Chancellor Philip Hammond as he searches for savings – but not, one suspects, by scrapping Trident. Mrs May has promised to defend the “precious bond” of the Union and no doubt she believes that. She dumped her plans to scrap the Human Rights Act in part because the Scottish Government threatened to challenge it in the courts. (Interesting precedent, perhaps, for the moment when Westminster tries to abolish Scots’ right of citizenship of the EU).

My esteemed colleague of this parish, David Torrance, believes PM May might even offer a second independence referendum, though I suspect that’s wishful thinking. But hey – as someone once said in a different context: “Bring it on.” Imagine if the Tories opted to break up Britain after breaking up the EU?

The more immediate question, as the new Tory Government mounts a priapic rampage across the public sector, is where is the opposition to come from in Westminster? We have a Prime Minister, and a new Cabinet. But Her Majesty’s Opposition lacks a leader right now. Or rather they have one but no one in the Parliamentary Labour Party wants to follow him.

The SNP can and will do its best to provide some opposition – especially during the impending Trident renewal debate. But there’s only so much 56 MPs can do in a chamber of 650. And yes I know there’s technically only 54 SNP MPs on the whip but they’ll vote as a pack. But in Labour it’s the other way round. Mr Corbyn can’t even guarantee the support of 51 Labour MPs.

Mind you his mandate lies inthe party membership that voted for him and allowed him to survive the most inept coup in the history of parliamentary infamy. First the anti-Corbynites used a press briefing campaign to undermine the Labour leader before launching a mass resignation from the shadow cabinet. That didn’t work. So then attempts were made to keep Mr Corbyn off the ballot paper. That backfired spectacularly when Labour’s ruling NEC said the sitting leader should be there. Mr Corbyn was made a martyr and confirmed in office all in a day.

But it didn’t stop there. In a last minute coup-ette that took place after Mr Corbyn and co had left the NEC, the anti-Corbynistas moved to disenfranchise 130,000 Labour members who had joined in the last six months. Unless, that is, they cough up £25 to become registered supporters during a two-day window of opportunity next week. Though even that is not clear. Nor is the status of members of affiliated trades unions who might have a much cheaper right to vote.

Then we heard, astonishingly, that Constituency Labour Parties are not going to be allowed to meet during the leadership campaign. Uncle Joe Stalin could not have done better. Though no self-respecting Bolshevik would have tolerated this mess. Not all the disenfranchised members are even Corbyn left-wingers.

The novelist Robert Harris – whose book Dictator about the Roman Senator Cicero and the assassination of Julius Caesar tells you all you need to know about coups – had joined along with others in the #savinglabour movement precisely to vote against Mr Corbyn. He tweeted his fury at being disenfranchised.

Anyway, what the plotters seem to have forgotten is Mr Corbyn won the biggest landslide in any Labour leadership election before this Brexit membership surge took place. And most of them will be furious at what has been going on which may be why they aren’t being allowed to hold any more CLP meetings.

And for the avoidance of doubt, there has been a plot against Mr Corbyn. Even the new contender for the Labour crown, Pontypridd’s Owen Smith (who he?) has admitted as much. He told the BBC: “I think it has been destructive from a small group of people on the right who, just like those on the left, seem prepared to see Labour split.” Mind you, it hardly looks from the outside to be a small group – 172 Labour MPs signed the motion of no confidence in their leader, most of the PLP.

Now, Corbynites rightly insist the leader is elected by the party and his mandate is compelling. But the Labour MPs also say, rightly, they were elected by millions of voters. This is a contest of mandates Cicero would have recognised from the dying days of the Roman Republic.

The war has already begun. If Mr Corbyn is re-elected leader then a split seems almost inevitable. If MPs will not accept him as their parliamentary leader, they will have to withdraw from the Labour whip. The Gang of 172 can remain as independents of course, but the recriminations in the Labour constituency parties would be like nothing we have seen before.

We may even see this split yawning open during the forthcoming Trident vote. The SNP will drive a wedge between the unilateralist leader and pro-nuclear Labour MPs including both his rivals, Angela Eagle and Mr Smith. Assuming the party re-endorses Mr Corbyn in September, one of them may become the de facto leader of a new National Labour Party.
This last happened in 1931 when Ramsay MacDonald split the Labour Party. That let the Tories in for the duration of the Great Depression, which many believe was a crime against working people. But a similar divide seems inevitable unless some latter day Cicero comes up with a compromise. Perhaps the PLP could unite behind Mr Corbyn until after the 2020 General Election, after which he stands down if unsuccessful.

Otherwise it’s back to the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.


About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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