Jeremy Corbyn has warned his MPs to stop “sniping” at his leadership and get behind the Labour party and its members in the coming May elections.
In a showdown with his critics at the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting in the Commons, Mr Corbyn declared that the constant attacks were undermining party unity in the run-up to town hall, London, Scottish and Welsh polls.
Aides said afterwards that he had “drawn a line in the sand” over recent “backbiting” and the “mainstream” PLP had rallied round to condemn personal attacks on him and others.
The gathering took place amid a growing expectation among some Labour MPs that there will be a leadership challenge to Mr Corbyn this summer if the party goes 'backwards' in the May elections.
During the tense 70-minute meeting, MPs once more vented their concerns over issues such as Mr Corbyn’s perceived lack of engagement in the EU referendum ‘In’ campaign - and he faced palpable anger from women MPs over his recent remarks backing the “decriminalisation” of prostitution.
Other MPs said the Shadow Cabinet needed to get more in touch with working class communities, while one raised the issue of Mr Corbyn’s own poor personal poll ratings.
And one former minister told HuffPost UK that the pleas from the leader and the ‘spin’ from his aides was a clear pre-emptive attempt to blame ‘moderate’ critics of the leadership for any poor poll results in May.
Several women MPs queued up to criticise Mr Corbyn for his remarks to students last week in which he called for more “civilised” treatment of prostitution.
Fiona Mactaggart told Mr Corbyn “it's not a trade, it is exploitation", while Sharon Hodgson and Stella Creasy also said his remarks showed a misunderstanding of the nature of prostitution.
Ms Hodgson was particularly scathing, telling her leader that she and others had spent years working on the prostitution issue and he could not talk off the cuff "as an individual anymore".
"Prostitution is not productive. The only 'product' of the 'sex trade' is an orgasm for a man. That's not productive, that's not 'work'," Ms Hodgson said.
Ms Creasy pointed out that 50% of the women in prostitution started under 18 and the majority were substance abusers. She said that his remarks implied that men were not capable of equal and healthy relationships with women.
Ms Creasy also asked the Labour leader to back compulsory sex and relationships education in schools to prove that men's relations with women were 'based on consent, not cash', but did not get a reply.
At one point, Mr Corbyn said "we need to learn the lessons of Germany and the Netherlands", but former Home Office minister Ms Mactaggart banged her fist in fury, saying "No we don't!"
One MP told HuffPost: "Jeremy looked pretty startled at that". The Labour further infuriated those present by referring to prostitutes' "workers' rights". "You can't say incendiary things about prostitution, and policy, and then tell everyone to stop sniping at you," the MP said.
But Dawn Butler offered some support to Mr Corbyn by backing a campaign by the English Collective of Prostitutes to stop penalising clients of sex workers. "A few eyebrows were raised when she said that, as she's chair of the women's PLP," one MP told HuffPost.
Last week, several Labour backbenchers lambasted Shadow Communities Secretary Jon Trickett over his strategy for the local elections campaign ahead of May 5, with some labelling him “Trigger” from TV’s “Only Fools And Horses”, and others comparing his presentation to ‘The Monty Python Show’.
On Monday night, Mr Corbyn leapt to the defence of his colleague, at one point raising his voice to tell his MPs: “he’s working flat out…let's work with Jon and get behind Jon". He even joked that Mr Trickett's attempt to use a slide-show powerpoint presentation last week was not a success, saying "let's not do that again".
One MP said afterwards that Mr Trickett had now appeared to change his line from last week, when he had said he was 'confident' about Labour's chances in the May elections. Tonight he said instead that things would be 'difficult' in England, Scotland and Wales.
Liz Kendall repeated her point that Labour should be winning more than 400 seats in the English council elections if it was behaving like a normal Opposition.
The Labour leader, who revealed that he would hold a Shadow Cabinet meeting on Tuesday in Dagenham in honour of the equal pay pioneers to mark International Women’s Day, urged his colleagues to pull together in coming weeks.
He said that “we won’t always agree” but there was “something exciting about extending democracy” in the party, and the doubling of party membership in the past year had to be mobilised effectively.
Veteran Labour MP Barry Sheerman seized on Mr Corbyn’s perceived lack of enthusiasm for the EU In campaign. "Without the Labour machinery to get the vote out, we will lose!” he shouted. “Jeremy I beg you, get out there and show some passion to win the referendum.”
Former shadow Europe minister Emma Reynolds asked her leader when he would finally make a speech on European policy.
Wes Streeting said that he wanted to tell Mr Corbyn to his face that the main 'divisions' in the party were self-inflicted by the leadership's decision to revisit Trident policy and his decision to talk about the sovereignty of the Falklands.
Other MPs backed the leadership, however, and one shadow minister told colleagues to end the criticism because although the party was “outgunning the Tories on the streets”, the splits in the media were damaging on the doorstep. Shadow Ministers Louise Haigh and Rebecca Long-Bailey both offered their strong support for Mr Corbyn.
Some MPs felt that the leadership had galvanised its supporters to speak out, with MPs like David Anderson and Ian Lavery expressing support.
But one critic said there had been a Freudian slip when Mr Corbyn blurted out “The Tories are strong… er … they are not strong they are divided.”
Mr Corbyn answered each of the questions and summed up by saying that he wanted to continue his open style of leadership to encourage debate but only if a respectful manner. He twice pointed out that 500 people had turned up to a Labour party meeting in Lewisham.
Speaking after the meeting, a Labour spokesman said: “Jeremy Corbyn faced down his critics”.
“The mainstream of the PLP asserted itself. There was clear support for a more united approach as being necessary for Jeremy’s leadership, the Labour party as a whole, the elections that are coming up, the European referendum campaign. Clearly there was a sea-change in the atmosphere of the PLP.
“That clearly represented the centre of gravity of the meeting. There is support for Jeremy throughout the PLP and that clearly was demonstrated tonight. It has been less the case in some previous meetings where the minority who are not really prepared to accept the results of the democratic election last autumn have been very voluble. That clearly turned today.”
“One of the things that was demonstrated tonight was that those people who struggle to accept the results of the election last autumn. They clearly don’t represent majority and mainstream opinion in the Parliamentary Labour Party either.”
The Labour spokesman conceded that Mr Corbyn had not harangued his colleagues and had delivered his message “in his own way”.
“He’s polite, he’s respectful and he made it absolutely clear that this kind of backbiting and sniping from a minority in the Labour Party was not acceptable in its form or direction.
“That was clearly responded to by the MPs. The people who raised points did it in a much more tempered way than on previous occasions.
"They were responding not only to Jeremy’s own lead but also to the fact that their own members in their own constituencies are totally fed up with this public rowing, sniping, often in an anonymous way through the media. And I think that a clear line has been drawn in the sand tonight.”
He added that on the issue of local elections, it would be 'foolish' for anyone to make any predictions of the number of seats during the campaign.