Will Remainer infighting scupper plans for national unity government?
Tory rebels agree to meet Jeremy Corbyn despite Lib Dems saying they will not support Labour leader as caretaker
Rebel Tory MPs plotting to stop a no-deal Brexit have said they will meet Jeremy Corbyn to discuss plans for a government of national unity despite other opposition parties ruling out serving under the Labour leader.
Dominic Grieve, Dame Caroline Spelman, Sir Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles, the former Tory who now sits as an independent, have said they would enter talks with Corbyn, after receiving a letter urging them to back a Labour plan to topple Boris Johnson, via a no-confidence vote, and install him to lead a “strictly time-limited government” that would be given the task of extending Article 50 ahead of a Brexit-based general election.
However, The Times reports the letter, which was also sent to the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and Greens, has “prompted a fresh bout of Remainer infighting” with the Liberal Democrats saying the idea such a divisive figure as Corbyn could ever command a cross-party majority of MPs was “nonsense”.
“We may need an emergency government to resolve [Brexit],” she said. “But if Jeremy Corbyn truly wants that to succeed surely even he can see that he cannot lead it. There is no way he can unite rebel Conservatives and independents to stop Boris Johnson. It’s not even certain he would secure all the votes of Labour MPs.”
Former Tory Remainer Anna Soubry, who now leads the five-strong Independent Group for Change, echoed that sentiment by saying that while a national unity leader was needed Corbyn was “not that person.”
Corbyn hit back by stressing that as leader of Britain’s largest opposition party it was “absolutely in line with all the norms of the unwritten British constitution,” that he be the first to try to form a government. Politico says he “piled further pressure on the anti-Brexit parties to support his bid for No. 10 as the best route to staying in the EU” by making clear that if he does secure a general election before Britain leaves the EU, Labour’s manifesto would promise a second referendum with “Remain” on the ballot paper.
“In constitutional terms he is the obvious candidate; probably the only candidate,” says Rafael Behr in The Guardian. “But in the minds of scores of MPs he is not. Their horror of Corbyn is equal to – or greater than – their horror of Brexit.”
BBC political correspondent Tom Barton said the initial response from the other parties suggests Corbyn “probably doesn't have the numbers to get his plan through”.
“There are plenty of MPs who say they want to stop a no-deal Brexit but getting them to agree on how to do it – that’s a different matter altogether,” he says.
In a bid to break the deadlock, the Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has proposed either Tory MP Ken Clarke or Labour’s former deputy leader Harriet Harman, as the Father and Mother of the Commons, as alternative caretaker candidates whom those opposed to no deal could unite around.
Tom Peck in The Independent says “if a no-deal Brexit is to be avoided, somebody, somewhere, and very soon indeed, is going to have to do something they don’t want to do. But, at least for today, that person is not going to be Jo Swinson, and nobody quite knows who it will be”.
This sets up a high-stakes game of brinkmanship. Setting out the arguments on both sides Stephen Bush in the New Statesman writes “it would be politically self-destructive for Corbyn to give way on the question of who heads up that government because that would involve publicly acknowledging and giving credence to the doubts that Conservative rebels and former members of his own party have about his fitness for office – it’s not serious to expect any political leader to concede that point at any time, but particularly not before an election.”
“But it would also be politically self-destructive for the Liberal Democrats, whose path to winning more constituencies runs through picking up disgruntled former Labour voters and a small but significant tranche of despairing Conservative voters in Tory-held seats, to concede the idea that they could ever make Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister” he adds.
Behr says the Labour leader knows that the Commons numbers don’t add up for an alternative caretaker unless most of the parliamentary Labour party abandons the whip “and he is calling the whole GNU [Government of National Unity] bluff”.
“If a government falls, the opposition leader is the next in line to have a go and, if that can’t be arranged, there is an election. That is how it works. There might be many reasons why MPs do not want an opposition leader to take charge – that is their constitutional right, too – reasons of tactical political advantage and reasons of conscience. But MPs have not all been candid about what those reasons are; why it is that so many find Corbyn as toxic as Brexit. Their problem is that there aren’t a lot of other options”.
While there may be a majority in Parliament against no-deal, with Remainers so divided their plan for a government of national unity “remains a pipe dream”, says Asa Bennet in The Daily Telegraph.
“Unless Remainers are prepared to bite the bullet and declare confidence in Mr Corbyn as Prime Minister, a more credible scenario than him being persuaded to stand aside and support someone less tainted, their dream alternative government will never become a reality. And deservedly so,” he says.