Labour has gone oddly quiet today, and that’s not just because the party is enjoying the mayhem in the Conservative leadership contest. After a very well-organised week of resignations, the rebels have now decided to sit back and wait for Jeremy Corbyn to come to terms with what the party he leads now looks like.
The leader today appointed Angela Rayner as Shadow Education Secretary, which was a matter of necessity as it is Education Questions in the Commons on Monday, and the party didn’t have anyone to face Nicky Morgan. But the Labour frontbench generally looks like a Swiss cheese after the mice have been at it. There are gaps in every team. Only the whips office remains intact, and that is because they have concluded that their colleagues in the parliamentary party need some sense of structure.
The point of the programme of resignations this week was to show the strength of feeling, that MPs who care about Labour were unhappy enough to leave their party unable to function as an opposition, while backbench MPs continued to hold the government to account without submitting to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. That’s why we saw so many Labour MPs turning up to departmental questions this week, and why they decided not to boycott Prime Minister’s Questions after passing the vote of no confidence in Corbyn: they want to give the impression that they are better at opposition and more serious about it than their frontbench team.
Meanwhile two clear candidates to challenge Corbyn have emerged: Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, both of whom believe they are the right person to fight the Labour leader and win, and both of whom have strong support. They are not going to fight one another and there is a clear understanding that there can only be one candidate to challenge the leader. But the reason both Eagle and Smith have stayed quiet is that they, like the rebels, are just waiting for the reality of leading with such a patchy frontbench operation and an uncooperative backbench team to sink in and for Corbyn to step down without anyone challenging him. Even with a Shadow Education Secretary in place, the party is going to struggle to manage the basic functions of opposition, and the rebels hope that this will wear down what’s left of Corbyn’s resistance to resigning. There is a suspicion that he would quite like to step down, but is being urged by Karie Murphy and Seumas Milne to hang on.
Shadow Ministers continue to urge Corbyn to consider his position, but are struggling to get meetings with him. A group of six Shadow Cabinet ministers, led by Andy Burnham, tried to get a meeting with the leader yesterday, but were rebuffed by Milne and Murphy. A spokesman for the leader said he was attending a memorial service and then went straight to Westminster Abbey, before travelling to the Somme memorial very early this morning. Corbyn has now met three of those who wanted to speak to him, with other meetings being arranged. Others who have tried to get meetings have been told the leader doesn’t want to see groups, which the rebels think is because he cannot deal with criticism from too many people at once.
Corbyn’s team, meanwhile, insist that the only way things will change is if someone challenges him. For them, a challenge would be the ideal situation as it would galvanise the Labour membership into supporting a man who they think has been betrayed by his disloyal MPs. The longer Smith and Eagle wait, the longer the resolve in the leadership team is tested. It is now a question of who blinks first. I hear, though, that after a few days of eerie quiet, the plotters expect Monday to be rather noisy.