Jeremy Corbyn came under pressure from across the Commons today to abandon his bid to become Prime Minister of a caretaker government to prevent no-deal Brexit and instead step aside for a “unity” figurehead.
Leading Tories whose backing would be vital for such a plan to succeed said privately they could not support a proposal that amounted to installing “a Labour government supported by other parties” rather than “a genuine government of unity”.
Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, making her first big speech, said Mr Corbyn could probably not unite Labour MPs behind his plan, let alone bring on board rebel Tories and opposition parties. She proposed Tory veteran Kenneth Clarke, the Father of the House, or Labour’s former deputy leader Harriet Harman for the role.
Four senior Conservative rebels — Oliver Letwin, Dominic Grieve, Caroline Spelman and independent Tory Nicholas Boles — issued a cool response to Mr Corbyn, making no comment on his proposal but offering to meet “to discuss the different ways” that parties might co-operate to avoid no deal.
In his first interview on the subject, Mr Corbyn said a caretaker government should be “led by Labour”, a phrase that left open the possibility of a different leader. Responding to demands that he stand aside, Mr Corbyn said: “We, the Labour Party, by far the largest opposition party, have, I think, a responsibility to take over, to ensure there is no cliff-edge Brexit.”
Shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said Mr Corbyn may table a no-confidence vote “within days” of Parliament returning to work on September 3, but would not be pinned down on a date.
Ian Blackford, the leader of the Scottish Nationalists at Westminster, gave a more encouraging response, urging a “broad coalition” against no-deal. He wrote: “It’s not about, in this immediate case, who is prime minister, it is about stopping that act of economic self-harm that all of us would suffer from.”
Plaid Cymru group leader Liz Saville Roberts said: “I welcome the fact that at last Jeremy Corbyn is reaching out.”
But Anna Soubry, leader of the Independent Group for Change, said scathingly: “He [Corbyn] doesn’t command support or respect in his own political party, never mind across the Parliamentary divide.”
And former Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, who defected to the Lib Dems last night, said Mr Corbyn “won’t find the support of the Commons” and should step aside for Mr Clarke or Labour MP Hilary Benn. David Miliband, the former Labour Foreign Secretary, said Mr Corbyn and Mr Johnson were a “double act” pushing for a general election that would not avert a Brexit. Writing in tonight’s Standard, he called for a referendum.
Speaking to party activists in central London, Ms Swinson said an emergency government could resolve the current lack of progress on Brexit and block no deal, but if Mr Corbyn wanted it to succeed he “cannot lead it”.
“We are facing a national crisis,” she said. “We may need an emergency government to resolve it. But if Jeremy Corbyn 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 the votes of all the Labour MPs.
“What we need in a leader of an emergency government is a long-serving Member of Parliament who is respected on both sides of the House. Someone like Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman, the Father and Mother of the House.”