Illustration by Chris Malbon

    Labour’s Game of Thrones

    14 June 2017

    In the weeks before Theresa May called the snap election, something changed in the Labour party. Senior figures close to Jeremy Corbyn began to accept that he might not remain leader until 2020. They privately admitted that the damning allegation thrown at them by Labour moderates was true: their overriding objective was to secure the left’s control of the party, rather than to win elections. One top name even conceded that should the so-called ‘McDonnell amendment’ (a rule-change helping left-wing candidates enter leadership races) be approved by the party conference, and should Labour HQ be successfully restaffed in the image of the leader, Corbyn might consider a handover of power. Throughout the election campaign, knowledge of this new attitude inspired ambitious Labour moderates to start fantasising about the aftermath. One member of the parliamentary resistance, who had previously thought Corbyn unassailable, says a leadership contest could happen this year.

    If Corbyn clings on, emboldened by a better-than-expected result, don’t believe for a moment that those who spent the election quietly positioning themselves have abandoned all hope. The new season of Westminster’s Game of Thrones has begun. The Labour party’s Mother of Dragons has been waiting for months. Yvette Cooper wanted to run against Corbyn (The High Sparrow) in 2016, according to those familiar with her thinking, but was talked down by colleagues who convinced her Angela Eagle (Brienne of Tarth) should be the sole candidate. When Owen Smith (Joffrey Baratheon) came along and queered the pitch, Cooper carefully assumed the role of leader of the shadow opposition, giving rousing speeches at PLP meetings and making punchy Commons interventions to show the party what it was missing. A friend insists that this was ‘not a deliberate thing’ but that Cooper wanted to give colleagues ‘a sense there is still someone on their side and that their Labour party still exists’.

    At the first PMQs after the election announcement, Cooper launched a textbook tirade against May from the backbenches, blasting: ‘We cannot believe a single word she says.’ Her office immediately uploaded the video to Facebook and paid for it to be promoted among Labour supporters. (Money is not an issue — Cooper has raised £100,000 in the last year.) The clip went viral: Team Yvette boasted about two million views across various platforms. One Labour wag spotted the ‘sponsored’ tag on a Facebook post and concluded: ‘She’s running, then.’

    If the social media advertising was as subtle as a brick, the briefing from Cooper’s camp was a sledge-hammer. First, she began conversations with her former communications staff asking them to come back on board. Then her allies let it be known that ‘Yvette is 100 per cent going for leader’, while supportive articles discussed her being awarded the leadership ‘by acclamation’, i.e. with no other moderate candidate standing. This did not impress rivals. ‘It was an obvious attempt to manipulate people’s minds into thinking there has to be only one candidate,’ says a Labour moderate. ‘The reaction was “not now”. It went down really badly.’

    During the election campaign, anti-Corbyn MPs divided into two broad camps. Cooper’s supporters in the PLP heaped praise on their candidate, on Twitter and in private, talking up her ability to draw support from different sections of the party and across the country, and ultimately geared up for a post-election leadership bid. But others were determined there would be no handover ‘by acclamation’. Soon a ‘Stop Cooper’ faction emerged with the aim of making sure that more than one moderate candidate was in the running.

    Multiple figures from across the party confirm Chuka Umunna (Theon Greyjoy) was open about his desire to run for leader throughout the election build-up. He was the star speaker at several campaign launches, even invoking the spirit of Nelson Mandela to rally activists at one event. An essay Umunna wrote in March on ‘the Labour alternative’ was well received in the PLP, certainly in comparison to the disastrous 5,000-word manifesto of Dan Jarvis. This bombed so badly it ended his leadership chances in the eyes of many. Jarvis (Bronn) was humiliated (and publicly mocked by Manchester MP Lucy Powell) when his turgid tome confused the debt and the deficit. A Labour source says a ring-around seeking to drum up support afterwards was a failure and Jarvis’s nascent leadership bid collapsed.

    Umunna became close to the ‘Stronger In’ campaign chief Will Straw during the EU referendum, and Labour MPs expect them to work together now, aiming to inspire Remainers to sign up to Labour and out-number the Corbyn-istas. This would entail a significant shift in the party’s Brexit stance, including staying in the single market and retaining freedom of movement: policies unlikely to win over northern Labour MPs in Leave-voting constituencies. Some fear the man once dubbed the ‘British Obama’ now sees himself as an Emmanuel Macron-style ‘radical centrist’ who might be tempted to start a new party if the left consolidates its control after the election. ‘There are forces at work on both sides who can rip the party apart,’ says one veteran concerned about a split. Others say Umunna would struggle for PLP nominations — he has never been popular with MPs — and that he ‘just wants to be considered’, not to win. They point to two other ambitious MPs from the 2015 intake who have quickly gained profile at Westminster.

    Sir Keir Starmer (Jorah Mormont) was until a few months ago the bookies’ favourite for the Iron Throne. (At the time of writing, it is Yvette Cooper.) He has supporters among the old establishment — Alastair Campbell has been noticeably generous — and conversations have been held between MPs who believe he should run. Over the past few months, Starmer has travelled the country launching constituency election campaigns, speaking at fundraisers and meeting local members and trade unionists in Gloucester, Oxford, Burnley, Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent, Edinburgh, St Albans, Bermondsey, Derby and Wakefield, among other places.

    The shadow Brexit secretary was seen as a standout performer on the Labour front bench (hardly a crowning achievement), but his reputation took a hit over his misjudged response to the Article 50 debate. He is no young pretender (he will be 60 in 2022) and his parliamentary inexperience is seen as a problem. Some believe his best bet is to cut a deal with Cooper and be her shadow chancellor. Inexperience is also an issue for the ambitious Stephen Kinnock (Jon Snow). One source who discussed the party’s future with him in the spring said: ‘He is making clear to everybody he wants to run.’ The 47-year-old son of ex-party leader Neil had a suspiciously snappy slogan ready on the morning of Labour’s dire local election results last month: ‘Work, family, community and country.’ There were unkind comments that ‘without family he wouldn’t have any work’.

    Rachel Reeves (Cersei Lannister) has seen her star rising . She was once seen as a potential running mate to Dan Jarvis, but several MPs want her to go for the job herself now he is out of the picture. Michael Dugher recently called her ‘the biggest brain in the House of Commons’.

    What of the options on the left? Corbyn’s closest allies believe the desire of John McDonnell (Petyr Baelish) for the top job has cooled. He has been pushing Becky Long–Bailey (Sansa Stark) as the ‘next generation of our socialist leadership team’. While she is well-regarded by aides in the leader’s office, they accept she is not ready to lead. As she herself told a fringe event at Labour conference last year: ‘If I was chancellor of the exchequer, God help the world.’

    Angela Rayner (Gilly) is also seen as some way off making the grade. Lisa Nandy (Arya Stark) ruined her lefty street cred by resigning to back Owen Smith. One name that started to do the rounds at the beginning of the election campaign, to the disbelief of Labour moderates, was Emily Thornberry (Olenna Tyrell). MPs say she touted for support and she was tipped by Skwawkbox , the well-connected Corbynista blog, for the role of deputy leader. Such is the dearth of left-wing talent that semi-serious consideration was even given to Barry Gardiner (Hodor), one of the less accident–prone media performers in the shadow cabinet. His Panglossian defences of the Labour line have earned him cult status on the hard left.

    His battle to save his seat meant that there was little time for the ambitious Clive Lewis (Ramsay Bolton) to hatch plots during the election, save for writing a cryptic tweet about ‘someone, somewhere’ needing to ‘reappraise’ Labour’s policy platform. Lewis has a small yet high-profile band of support — his most obvious backer is Owen Jones (Samwell Tarly). Paul Mason (Grand Maester Pycelle)is also a fan, as are the left-wing journalists Ellie Mae O’Hagan and Abi Wilkinson (the ‘Clive-ettes’). Prominent Corbyn-istas believe Jones sees himself as the Seumas Milne (Tyrion Lannister) to Lewis’s Corbyn, a puppet master who would be the real power behind the throne. At a campaign event in Norwich in April, Lewis wore baggy jeans and a jumper while Jones sported a smart navy suit. ‘Owen is the candidate,’ joked a left-wing Labour source.

    There is, of course, another name. Party rules mean that as deputy leader, Tom Watson (Davos Seaworth) holds the cards if Corbyn changes his mind about digging in. As acting leader he would steer the party through the summer, seek a return to the pre–Miliband rules for the leadership election, even take the fight to the White Walkers (the Momentum hordes). Those who know him say he loves being deputy and has the job for as long as he wants, though there would surely be a temptation to make the interim position permanent. If not, Watson’s endorsement will be key for the other candidates.