Labour MPs are braced for a summer of re-selection battles to keep their Westminster seats after the party put itself on a ‘war footing’ for a snap election this autumn.
In a surprise move, all sitting MPs were told by email that they had just two weeks in which to express an interest in becoming candidates again.
New rules adopted last September make it easier for rank and file party members to replace their MP with a fresh contender, with less than a third of local branches now needed to trigger a contest.
Jeremy Corbyn supporters in some seats could now mobilise to try to oust local MPs, and some ‘moderate’ backbenchers said they expect a majority of the parliamentary party’s 247 seats to be ‘triggered’.
But several MPs were furious at the move and told HuffPost UK that it could undermine Corbyn’s hopes of winning a confidence vote to trigger a general election - as deselected MPs would have no incentive to follow the whip.
Within hours of the decision by the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) officers group, irritation spilled over at the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on Monday night.
PLP chairman Jon Cryer told the meeting he was given virtually no notice of the process, adding it was a “rushed job” to offer a fortnight when MPs were normally given two or three months’ notice.
General secretary Jennie Formby wrote to MPs to ask them to inform the party’s legal unit by 6pm, July 8 “if you wish to remain a candidate at the next General Election”.
She added: “May I also take this opportunity to thank you for the work you have done so far on behalf of the party in parliament.”
In reality, most Labour MPs who had been expected to be toppled by deselection attempts have already quit the party - with Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker and others joining the Independent Group of MPs.
And although the new process could see scores of MPs triggered, centrist groups think that all but a handful have enough local support to see off a challenge.
Many are using their strong support for a second Brexit referendum to rally local members. MPs such as Kate Hoey, who backs Brexit, could face a real struggle if they lack sufficient support over other issues.
It is unclear whether MPs who are currently suspended - including leftwinger Chris Williamson - will be given special treatment.
However one MP was scathing: “We face a new Tory PM who may not even have the confidence of the business community and instead of taking the chance to unite the party against him, this means we will be embarking on a divisive, intra-factional shitfest.
“Why unleash a summer of internal party chaos and self-harm? A number of people are already thinking of joining other parties. This could speed that up.
“There’s also the cost in time and money. People don’t realise it will cost tens of thousands of pounds to organise selection meetings across the country. It will take many hours of staff time to organise, time that could be spent on fighting the Tories.”
Another former minister added: “If they deselect people, the chances of winning a confidence vote would diminish. What incentive would it give those MPs to toe the party line?”
A Corbyn-supporting MP was more relaxed. “If MPs have a good relationship with their CLP [constituency Labour party], they’ll have nothing to be afraid of,” they said.
A Labour Party spokesperson said: “Ahead of a possible general election, Labour will begin a reselection process of MPs. We are preparing for a general election, whenever it comes.
“Under longstanding Labour Party rules, reselection processes are held within every Labour-held constituency in between each general election. The process isn’t new.”
Labour sources stressed that with the party “on an election footing” the process had to take place under long-standing rules.
Corbyn is set to clarify the party’s position on a second Brexit referendum in coming days. He met union leaders on Monday, but there was no consensus.
The GMB, USDAW and TSSA unions all backed a confirmatory vote by the public, while Unite, Aslef and CWU unions opposed the idea. Unison, which hosted the talks, had a nuanced position, one source claimed.
The shadow cabinet will meet on Tuesday to discuss the issue and several frontbenchers are going to push for a ‘referendum-and-remain’ policy.
In the Commons, Corbyn hinted that he was now firm on some of the choices he was prepared to accept. He asked Theresa May: “What would be worse - crashing out with no deal in October, or putting this issue back to the people for a final say?”