Labour’s ruling body could seize effective control of the country if Jeremy Corbyn is forced to quit suddenly as Prime Minister, MPs have warned.
HuffPost UK has learned that the National Executive Committee (NEC) voted on Saturday night to back a change to Labour rules that could mean no acting leader could do anything without its prior approval – in government as well as opposition.
The emergency powers proposal – dubbed ‘the Politburo plan’ by critics – is aimed at ensuring Labour would continue to reflect Corbyn’s leftwing politics even if he had to step aside for some reason.
Under the plan, new rules will be drafted on 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.
It can take months for a new leader to be elected and under current rules the deputy Labour leader or another Cabinet minster would step in temporarily.
The rule change was endorsed by the NEC despite furious opposition from MPs at the meeting, including former acting leader and former foreign secretary Dame Margaret Beckett.
Beckett said that the decision to change the rules was the most “ridiculous” she had ever witnessed in all her years on the NEC, one source told HuffPost UK.
But with the party leadership having drafted the plan, the ruling body voted by a majority to adopt it. The party conference will be asked to vote on it on Sunday as part of a raft of internal party changes.
MPs in the NEC meeting questioned whether the proposal would only apply in opposition, and were stunned to be told by a party HQ official that it would apply in government.
When HuffPost first revealed the new rule change proposal last week, many in the party assumed that if passed it would only apply to a Leader of the Opposition.
Allies of Corbyn insisted on Sunday that the NEC would not try to affect the role or powers of a Prime Minister and that it would look at codifying the acting leader’s role in relation to internal party processes rather than government.
Yet critics fear it would now apply to a sitting Labour government to prevent any acting leader – such as deputy Tom Watson or any other Cabinet minister – from doing anything without the explicit approval of the NEC.
Current party rules are explicit about what happens in the event of a vacancy being caused by a Labour leader’s sudden resignation.
Chapter 4, Clause II of the rulebook states:
“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 would supercede that and add 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.”
It is understood that those close to Corbyn believe the rule change would give the NEC the power to codify a role that they believe is currently undefined in the party rulebook.
Allies of the leader believe there is uncertainty and confusion in the present rules and stress that the change does not propose how the NEC’s role should be defined, just that it should be defined.
However, some Labour MPs believe that the plan would leave the party open to ridicule as it appears to put unelected officials in charge of the party and country rather than a directly elected MP.
One said: “It sounds like they want the Politburo to run Britain if Jeremy has to step aside for some reason. It’s unbelievable.”
Others question why the rule change is needed now, and why it will be ‘immediately’ incorporated into the rulebook rather than wait for a full debate at next year’s conference.
Corbyn has shown no inclination for stepping down at any point and has vowed to fight the next election whenever it comes.
Yet some around him fear that Watson or another replacement could shift the party away from the member-led, leftwing direction the party has taken since 2015.
Watson’s role as deputy leader is already set to be diluted by a separate rule change to create a second deputy role, filled by a woman.
His role in the 2016 ‘attempted coup’ against Corbyn has not been forgiven by some party members, despite the loyalty he has shown since the 2017 election.
The antipathy is set to be underlined on Sunday when protestors try to target Watson at a cycling event at the party conference in Liverpool.
One senior member of the NEC said that the new rule change looked ‘unenforceable’, while others suggested it could trigger a legal challenge.
A Labour spokesperson has been asked for comment.