If you're a pro-Remain Labour member angry that the conference yesterday voted narrowly – and chaotically – to maintain the party's ambiguity on Brexit, where do you go? A number of shadow cabinet members are hoping they can be the answer to that question. Emily Thornberry has perhaps been the most obvious candidate to take over from Jeremy Corbyn, particularly when dressed as an EU flag, but she's got competition. Last night at a fringe meeting organised by Politico, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer also made a rather obvious pitch of his own.
We were given a backstory (father worked in a factory, mother was a nurse until illness forced her to stop work, and the family lived not in posh Labour north London but the badlands of, er, the Surrey/Kent border), a wide-ranging view from Starmer on policy and the party, and his commitment to everything public (no private schooling, no private health etc). We even got the classic denial of a leadership contest, with Starmer saying 'we don't need a new leader just at the moment'. Corbyn, he said, would be the leader into the next general election, which is coming soon. But presumably just after that moment, Starmer will be ready to campaign in an even less subtle way.
He criticised Corbyn's decision to remain neutral, arguing it was better to campaign to Remain, and also predicted that the special conference where the party will now decide its stance will also end up backing Remain:
'I've got a pretty clear idea of where the members are on this, and therefore I think it is very likely the members will want us to campaign for Remain. We campaigned for Remain in 2016. We are currently campaigning for Remain against any Tory outcome, and it seems to me obvious where the membership is.’
The atmosphere at this conference is an odd one. Corbyn does still inspire noisy loyalty from members, but some of that loyalty feels rather defensive now. Yesterday's vote on Brexit turned into one about the leadership, hence the frequent singing of the 'ohh, Jeremy Corbyn' hymn. There's a planned protest of Tom Watson's speech this afternoon, with activists calling for a staged walkout. This instability is clearly leading ambitious MPs to think that now is the time to start setting out their stall to dissatisfied members who aren't joining in with the singing. But neither Starmer nor Thornberry are really part of the Corbynite machine. And that hasn't cranked up yet.