When he undertook his relaxed media interviews on the sofa this morning, Jeremy Corbyn clearly had no idea that his opposite number was planning to call a snap general election. Now as we all digest the news that Britain is once again throwing the political dice on its future, Jeremy Corbyn faces the greatest challenge of his leadership.
A bold move by an increasingly confident Prime Minister has broken the mood of irrelevant calm in Jeremy Corbyn’s office. They believed they could settle down for months if not years of doing their favourite things: attacking Labour’s record in Government and blaming Labour MPs for destabilising the Leader. Now that bubble has been abruptly burst by Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn looks even more out of his depth than he did sat on Piers Morgan’s sofa a few hours ago.
Once the dust has settled on the announcement, it’s clear that this forthcoming General Election means three things for Labour:
- Corbyn and his team will face a logistical challenge which they may not be able to bear: an almost incomprehensible reaction clip recorded of Corbyn in his office this lunchtime is a sign of things to come, this election campaign will place pressures and strains on a man who actively rejects the normal patterns of modern politics. Whether he likes it or not, elections are effectively a job interview with Britain for the office of the Prime Minister. That means TV debates, daily campaign events and visits, door knocking all across the country (not just in Islington), and engaging with the media almost every second of every day between now and June the 8th. These are things that Corbyn’s team have either failed to do well or have deliberately avoided – knowing as they do their Leader’s weaknesses when it comes to presentation and communication. But being a part-time Leader of the Opposition is no longer optional for Team Corbyn, whilst many veteran Labour Party staff will have tough elections under their belts, the campaign will be an unprecedented challenge for Corbyn and his closest political advisers many of whom have never even fought a general election campaign – let along run one.
- Labour will lose seats in Parliament: the latest opinion polls give the Conservatives a 21 point lead over the Labour Party, suggesting that unless Jeremy Corbyn dramatically alters Labour’s standing in the country then Labour looks set to lose a fair number of its MPs. Presumably part of the Prime Ministers calculation in calling the election is the dire state of Labour’s poll ratings, but if she can translate those polls into reality in June then Labour could see itself further enfeebled to become a solely metropolitan political force with almost no representation in Southern England and Scotland. There are many hardworking and dedicated Labour MPs who now face the prospect of Corbyn’s unpopularity robbing them of their seats in marginal constituencies, and more broadly this raises the question of what kind of opposition force Labour will be in the new Parliament if its numbers are so dramatically reduced by a Conservative victory?
- Labour will have a leadership contest: if Labour does lose the election it seems likely that there will be another leadership election. If he has any grace, Corbyn will resign and allow one of his proxies to fight it out with another challenger. But it is not impossible that he will judge that the membership remains in his favour and that his supporters will be willing to give him another chance as leader. As maddening as this will be for many Labour MPs and activists who will rightly place Labour’s poll rating doldrums at Corbyn’s door, his grip over the Party’s grassroots and his team of committed Momentum activists make it difficult to see another candidate beating him in a straight fight. Either way, if Theresa May sees off Labour in the election she will then enjoy the sight of her main opponents tearing themselves apart for the future of their party….. again.
All of this make the general election look like a further weakening – but not necessarily the end – of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Labour Party. The question is what kind of party will be left for him or anyone else to lead once this election is done?
David Chaplin is a senior associate director at H+K Strategies and was a media adviser on Labour’s 2015 General Election campaign