Emergency plans are being drafted within Labour to severely restrict the powers of deputy leader Tom Watson in the event of a sudden resignation by Jeremy Corbyn, HuffPost can reveal.
A proposed change to the party rulebook circulated to senior figures includes a key new curb on any ‘acting leader’, forcing them to subject all of their actions to the prior approval of the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC).
When a Labour leader steps aside, the deputy leader automatically becomes ‘acting leader’ in their place while a new election is arranged.
However, the leadership election can take many months and supporters of Corbyn are determined that the party should stick with his political direction should he have to step aside for any reason.
The proposed rule change - drafted by senior allies of the leader - would add a brand new clause to the Labour constitution, effectively putting the NEC in charge of the party rather than Watson.
It aims to set out for the first time the “acting leader’s scope for action, powers, requirement for approval of actions by the NEC and any other qualifications on the scope of the role”.
Crucially, the rule change proposes the NEC can “immediately” incorporate the reform, pending a more permanent solution approved by next year’s party conference.
The wording of the change, buried in new NEC papers and leaked to HuffPost, seeks to amend the current rules on what happens when there is a leadership vacancy in Opposition.
Current rules – under Chapter 4, Clause II of the rulebook – state:
“When the Party is in opposition and the Party leader, for whatever reason, becomes permanently unavailable, the deputy leader shall automatically become Party leader on a pro-tem basis.
“The NEC shall decide whether to hold an immediate ballot as provided under E above or to elect a new leader at the next annual session of Party conference.”
But the new extra clause states:
“Chapter 4, Clause II.2. Create new sub-clause F
F. The NEC shall set out the role and responsibilities of an acting leader under 2.E above, including the acting leader’s scope for action, powers, requirement for approval of actions by the NEC and any other qualifications on the scope of the role.
“The NEC may immediately incorporate these roles and responsibilities into this rule book, subject to approval at Annual Conference 2019, when this sub-clause shall expire.”
Such ‘sunset’ clauses are rare within the party and the wording has sparked suspicions among some members of the NEC that contingency plans are being arranged for Corbyn’s departure.
Corbyn himself has shown no sign at all of wanting to step down, and has repeatedly said he aims to lead the party into the next general election and beyond.
He has spent the summer on the campaign trail and his allies insist his hunger for the job has increased and not diminished.
A Labour source said that it was “complete and utter rubbish” to suggest Corbyn was intending to step aside.
However, the ‘immediate’ effect of the new rule change has sparked speculation among some MPs as to the reason for urgency.
One MP told HuffPost: “This looks like they’re trying to turn the NEC into the Politburo with greater power than the acting leader.
“But it also looks like someone is trying to lay the ground for the departure of Jeremy at some point over the next year.”
One insider said that there would be a fierce legal battle if the new clause was adopted as it would seem to challenge the existing rights of the directly elected deputy leader of the party.
A senior figure added: “It’s an unenforceable act of paranoid Bolshevism.”
An NEC member said: “There is a lot of stuff about leadership elections that has made people wonder what will happen after conference.”
Watson was elected in 2015 with a big personal mandate of 198,962 votes of party members and union affiliates.
But he has clashed with Corbyn and his supporters over the years, and was heavily criticised by the Left during the attempted ‘coup’ of 2016.
Since the 2017 election, he has been markedly loyal to the leadership, though that did not prevent him from attacking NEC left-winger Pete Willsman over his anti-semitism remarks.
The party’s ruling NEC is already preparing for big battles over MP reselection and leadership rule changes at its meeting on Tuesday.
It is unclear whether the NEC will approve the proposed new clause at the meeting.
Former deputy leader Harriet Harman was ‘acting leader’ from May until September in 2015, a period during which some on the Left believed the party failed to properly oppose Tory welfare cuts.