AT 4.01 pm precisely next Thursday, Labour candidates will get their chance to save their party from extinction and improve dramatically their own chances of victory.
After that point, when nominations are closed for the General Election, they will have no fear of deposition by their local parties or challenge from any independent breakaway Labour candidate. As characters used to say in Victorian melodrama: “Free at last!”
Candidates would be free to say that if elected, they would not support Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister in the new Parliament. They would each say whom they would support instead. They should give some names in order of preference, because at that point all the alternatives to Corbyn, like Corbyn himself, would be candidates for Parliament, and it would be arrogant to assume that their first chosen candidate would be automatically elected.
The first choice of all the Labour candidates actually elected would then become the leader of the party in Parliament. If Labour, after all, won a majority of seats that leader would become Prime Minister, and if Labour were the largest single party, he or she would get the first chance to form a new government.
That is because the United Kingdom is still a Parliamentary democracy. Whoever has the support of the most MPs in the House of Commons is our Prime Minister.
If enough candidates took this action, Jeremy Corbyn would cease to be Labour’s alternative Prime Minister. It would be quite possible for him to remain as leader of the party outside Parliament. If Labour forms a Cabinet, he could be given a seat in it. He could be valuable as a bridge to Labour activists, a guarantee of commitment to key manifesto pledges. He could be given responsibility for some cherished personal issues, including mental health, to which he rightly gave a high profile when he took over as leader.
Retaining Corbyn in this role would avoid any problem of his deputy, Tom Watson, becoming temporary leader. He offers voters little more than Corbyn as a potential Prime Minister and would face great hostility in the media over his support for proposals to coerce them into accepting a regulator bankrolled by his own patron, Max Mosley.
In present circumstances, I believe that Labour candidates could do most good for themselves – and their party – by committing to Yvette Cooper as their Prime Minister in waiting. She is defending a majority of more than 15,000 (over Ukip) in Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford.
With the added lift of becoming Labour’s new standard-bearer, she is likely to be re-elected. She is the most experienced available alternative to Corbyn, and has already shown herself a match for Theresa May. She looks like a tough and capable Prime Minister, who would make good decisions in a crisis. In general, she is good with the media. One bonus of choosing Cooper would be the prospect of campaign appearances by her husband, Ed Balls, far more popular as a dance contestant than he ever was as a front-rank politician.
To boost the “Cooper effect” and deny the Tories a weapon against her, Labour candidates should commit themselves (if elected) to support no one else for at least two years, so that she could govern as Prime Minister without the fear of an early leadership contest.
Supplanting Jeremy Corbyn in this way is not an instant answer to all of Labour problems. Some candidates would not join a coup against him, although I suspect that many supposed loyalists would abandon him to improve their own chances in their constituency.
The replacement (I continue to call her Cooper for convenience) would have to face fury from many activists and some might disrupt her campaign appearances. She could defuse much activist hostility by having an early stand-up row with Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, particularly the latter since he has become political halitosis to any cause. She would have to deal with Corbynites in key positions in the party and the unions. The Tories would devour and recycle evidence that Labour has fallen into civil war.
But the Tories would lose their greatest asset: the match-up between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. They will no longer get an easy passage on policy issues. Cooper would have four weeks (a long time in politics) to create a new picture of the Labour Party in voters’ minds. She can pick out popular Labour policies and make people believe that they will be competently executed in government. She can simply ignore unpopular policies. Above all, she would dominate the election agenda: I can see a classic election movie in the making, “All About Yvette.”
Replacing Corbyn is Labour’s only serious hope of victory. Its candidates could achieve this. They are all aspiring MPs, and should remember that MPs are sometimes expected to take big decisions requiring conviction and courage. More important, they are the trustees of the hopes of thousands of people in their constituencies for a better life. Those hopes will be betrayed if they stick with Jeremy Corbyn.
Richard Heller is an author and journalist. He was chief of staff to Denis Healey and to Gerald Kaufman. His latest book is White On Green celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket.