Labour’s ruling body is drafting fresh emergency plans to allow it to take temporary control of the party if Jeremy Corbyn should suddenly quit as leader.
A paper on ‘the role of the Acting Leader’ of the party is set to be discussed at the National Executive Committee (NEC) hearing on Tuesday in an apparent bid to clip the wings of deputy leader Tom Watson, HuffPost UK has learned.
Normally, the deputy leader would automatically step into the shoes of the leader in an emergency, but Corbyn allies believe that would give too much power to Watson pending the election of a replacement.
Critics claim that the plan could even apply to Labour in government as well as opposition, with one saying the NEC “Politburo” would effectively run the country if Corbyn were forced to step aside due to illness or any other reason.
It’s understood that some in the party are determined to ensure that another senior shadow cabinet minister, or cabinet minister in government, is installed as temporary leader or PM, rather than Watson.
Former deputy leader Margaret Beckett - who had to step in as acting leader after John Smith’s death in 1994 - savaged the proposal privately last year.
Beckett, who is also a member of the NEC, called it one of the most “ridiculous” she had ever heard, but it was still passed and endorsed by the annual conference in 2018.
With the temporary rules due to expire this month, there is now a fresh bid by Corbyn supporters to define the powers of the NEC to ensure that whoever becomes ‘acting leader’ in an emergency has to answer to them first.
One senior party source told HuffPost UK that the move would look particularly embarrassing given how much Labour had criticised the Tories for allowing Boris Johnson to be chosen as PM by only Conservative Party members.
“We’ve been saying it’s wrong for 160,000 Tory members to pick our prime minister. But apparently it’s OK for thirty-odd people on the Politburo to take over if our leader is suddenly no longer in post,” they said.
Supporters of the changes however stress that they are aimed to ensuring the party’s membership and unions have a greater say through the NEC in the event of any sudden vacancy.
The current proposals aim to look at the “acting leader’s scope for action” and “powers”, and any “requirement for approval of actions by the NEC”, pending the election of a new leader.
MPs in the NEC meeting last year questioned whether the proposal would only apply in opposition, and were stunned to be told by a party HQ official that it would also apply in government.
Previous party rules were explicit about what happens in the event of a vacancy caused by a Labour leader’s sudden resignation.
Chapter 4, Clause II of the rulebook stated:
“E. Procedure in a vacancy
When the Party is in government and the Party leader is prime minister and the Party leader, for whatever reason, becomes permanently unavailable, the Cabinet shall, in consultation with the NEC, appoint one of its members to serve as Party leader until a ballot under these rules can be carried out.
“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 rule change superceded that and added a key new catch-all condition to bind the hands of any acting leader.
“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.”
Members of the NEC are due to discuss the latest paper on the issue at their Tuesday meeting, ahead of the party’s conference in Brighton this weekend.
UPDATE: The NEC agreed on Friday a rule change that included this key section:
“The acting leader’s powers only take effect when her/his appointment has been approved by the NEC.”