When Jeremy Corbyn took his seat, his contribution to yesterday’s Prime Minister’s Questions done, he must have done so with a sense of satisfaction. He’d enjoyed arguably his best performance yet at Parliament’s primary set-piece. Certainly, that was the view of journalists in the Westminster lobby when voicing their views on Twitter. Labour’s spinners were doubtless barely able to contain their glee.
Not even 12 hours later, Mr Corbyn’s success in one-upping the Prime Minister throughout PMQs was long since forgotten. It had gone from a watershed moment to a very false dawn. Instead the speculation was that Mr Corbyn’s days as leader could be numbered.
The cause of this stark reversal of fortunes was Brexit. Or more specifically the Commons passing the Brexit Bill and granting the Prime Minister power to invoke Article 50 and start negotiations on leaving the EU (the Lords still have to debate the Bill, but it would be a shock if it didn’t still pass post haste). Mr Corbyn had imposed a three-line whip, ordering his MPs to vote for the Bill with the Government. And then 52 of them defied him, while Diane Abbott was to be found on the BBC criticising the Government over Brexit moments after voting ‘aye.’
A bad night for Mr Corbyn then turned into a bad morning. Appearing on BBC Breakfast, he was questioned on his MPs defying his instructions and whether his leadership could be under threat. He chose to accuse the BBC of peddling ‘fake news.’
The speed at which Mr Corbyn went from triumph to tribulation aside, the episode highlights yet again the problems Labour is facing. And make no mistake, there’s no easy fix.
Mr Corbyn insisted the MPs who ignored his three-line whip did so to follow the wishes of their constituents. All well and good, but it paints a difficult picture for a leader whose instructions have been ignored, who lost shadow ministers in the process, but is unable to take meaningful punitive action against them. At the same time, Labour’s position as a party is no better than that of its leader. The Party is split across two fundamental issues of Brexit and the nuclear deterrent, and seems far more fractured than the Conservatives. At the same time, and despite the evident disconnect between Mr Corbyn and his MPs, there’s little sign of the Labour leader going anywhere anytime soon. His support amongst the rank and file makes his winning another leadership contest a formality. Facing the likelihood of defeat, there isn’t exactly a queue of Labour MPs ready to challenge Mr Corbyn.
Labour’s difficulties are rapidly becoming – indeed have arguably become – self-perpetuating. Mr Corbyn hits a wall, his MPs at best grumble or at worst rebel, but no-one challenges him to break the cycle. We may see a leadership challenge before the Party’s annual conference later in the year, but in the interim Labour HQ has a job on its hands to ensure ministers are subjected to effective scrutiny and opposition. The passing of the Brexit Bill may be, in an ironic way, an opportunity for Mr Corbyn. The Trident vote has also passed, so he can devote energies to challenging the Government on an issue on which he can unite his MPs. We saw a glimpse of the possibility at PMQs yesterday. Sustaining that type of rhetoric and challenge is perhaps the only way the Labour leader can ensure a reversal of fortunes.