The Labour Party stands on the brink of civil war in the wake of its crushing election defeat, as MPs from the party’s centrist wing raise howls of protest against efforts to instal a new leader in the mould of Jeremy Corbyn.
With senior figures on the Labour left coalescing around Rebecca Long-Bailey as the candidate to take the Corbyn project forward, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said that any likely contenders for the top job would be signed up to the policy programme put forward in the manifesto for this month’s election.
Mr McDonnell said he expected the succession to take place in eight to 10 weeks’ time and believed that the shadow business secretary would make a “brilliant leader”, namechecking her alongside shadow cabinet leftists such as Angela Rayner, Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler.
But critics said the party must not choose a “continuity Corbyn” candidate wedded to a policy agenda of nationalisations and tax hikes which had consigned Labour to its worst defeat since 1935. Former minister Caroline Flint, who lost her Don Valley seat after 22 years, warned against picking “Corbyn without a beard”.
And there was anger at the leader himself after he penned an article claiming that he had “won the arguments” in the election and failed to win power because of Brexit and press vilification rather than his policy agenda.
Harriet Harman, who took over as interim leader when Ed Miliband resigned immediately after losing the 2015 election, responded: “This shows no willingness to understand why Labour suffered this catastrophic defeat. Jeremy Corbyn should resign.”
Ms Long-Bailey herself was keeping tight-lipped over her plans, though she is known to have met with shadow education secretary Ms Rayner over the weekend to discuss the coming contest for the leader and deputy leader posts.
Ms Rayner was understood to be mulling a bid for the deputy leadership, vacated by Tom Watson on the eve of the election campaign. And shadow justice secretary Mr Burgon said he was backing Ms Long-Bailey for the leadership and considering throwing his hat Into the ring as deputy.
Meanwhile, a furious row broke out between Emily Thornberry and Ms Flint over her claim that the shadow foreign secretary had told another MP that Labour Leave voters were “stupid”.
The former Don Valley MP told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday that there would be “no credibility” in a run for the leadership by those who had pushed Labour into supporting a second referendum, such as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer and Ms Thornberry, adding: “She said to one of my colleagues: ‘I’m glad my constituents aren’t as stupid as yours’.”
A furious Ms Thornberry denounced the claim as “a total and utter lie”.
“I have never said this to anyone, nor anything like it,” she said. “And, I hope needless to say, it is not something I would ever think.”
Wigan MP Lisa Nandy was the first to break cover on her intention to run in what could be a crowded leadership race, with Ms Thornberry, Sir Keir Starmer, outspoken Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Phillips and backbencher David Lammy also considering putting themselves forward.
Ms Nandy said she was “seriously thinking” about a bid, but told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show it would be a “very, very hard road” to regain the trust of Labour voters in towns across the north of England.
The Wigan MP said it was “very, very clear” that Mr McDonnell had “a favoured candidate”, adding: “Perhaps Jeremy has as well, I don’t know.” But she insisted that she trusted the ruling national executive committee, which is dominated by Corbyn supporters, to “run a fair process”.
There was some confusion over when the NEC will gather, with members Alice Perry and Mark Ferguson tweeting that they had not been informed about a meeting which Mr McDonnell said would take place next week.
Ms Nandy was being seen as a possible rallying point for critics of the Corbyn project, with one senior backbencher telling The Independent she was “head and shoulders above the rest”.
Amid anger at the loss of 60 seats – including some which had been in Labour hands for generations – it was clear that some within the parliamentary Labour Party want to draw the curtain down on the Corbyn era.
Longtime Corbyn critic Neil Coyle told The Independent: “If the answer to the worst defeat in a century is continuity Corbyn, people haven’t understood the message the voters have given us.
“No one who sat around the shadow cabinet table for the last couple of years and said nothing about antisemitism, and no one who voted for an early election which let to us being decimated, has the political nous to lead the Labour Party.”
Ilford North MP Wes Streeting said: “Our next leader needs to be someone who can mount a clean break from the past. The problem isn’t just Corbyn, it is Corbynism. Every Conservative policy has been enabled by Corbynism.”
And another MP, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Nobody tainted by propping Corbyn up should even be in the running. The only credible candidates are backbenchers.”
Mr McDonnell firmly rejected calls for a change of direction, telling Andrew Marr: “We’re signed up to the political analysis that we’ve got and the programme we advocate. The issue for us is how do we get that message across.”
While it was up to party members to pick a new leader, Mr McDonnell said he did not think there was “much difference in terms of policy” between the leading contenders, adding: “They’re all signed up to the policy of the programme.”
And another senior Labour MP pointed to internal party polling suggesting that policies like taxes on high earners, nationalisation of utilities and rail, worker representation on company boards and borrowing to fund infrastructure were supported by a majority of voters.
Blaming Labour’s defeat on divisions over Brexit, the MP said: “Under Jeremy, we achieved the biggest increase in our share of the vote since 1945.
“We know our policies to put wealth and power in people’s hands are popular. And these are the policies that will win us back the Labour heartlands after Brexit.”
Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey, a key power behind the Labour throne, named Ms Long-Bailey and Ms Rayner as potential leaders who would “carry on the tradition” and deliver “a radical alternative to the misery that is being caused for 10 years by a Tory government”.
He told BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics: “I believe that the values of what Labour stand for – all the ones that we should continue with, the ones that have made us the largest political party in Europe – they’re the ones that have attracted young people, the future of our nation as young people they flock to Labour.”
But a centrist Labour MP blamed the “negative influence” of Mr McCluskey for Thursday’s defeat and warned that instead of learning from his errors, the union boss was determined to repeat them.
“He’s like a crack addict,” said the MP. “He needs one more hit. He’s already stolen all our money, sold all our goods and furniture and now wants the Labour Party to go on the game to fund his last big hit. The madness must end.”