Corbyn guessing game rises to new pitch

Jeremy Corbyn Image copyright PA

Could Jeremy Corbyn be replaced as Labour leader? And if so when?

Those whispered questions have been echoing between Labour MPs and party apparatchiks at Westminster for weeks, for months. But today the guessing game has risen to a new pitch.

In BBC interviews, we have been given answers of a sort by two of the most prominent members of the shadow cabinet.

Yes, the Labour leader could be replaced. And the change could take place at the next election, "if and when" Mr Corbyn decides he has had enough.

This time, the helpful guidance was not contained in any unattributed, anonymous briefing from a "senior MP" or "party source", who may or may not be keen to hasten Mr Corbyn on his way. They were the words of the party's newly appointed election co-ordinator in the shadow cabinet, Ian Lavery.

In an interview with me for BBC Radio 5 live's Pienaar's Politics, I asked Mr Lavery if a report in the Sunday Times newspaper was true - that the party had conducted focus group research to gauge the potential appeal of two shadow cabinet colleagues, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Raynor, as potential future leadership candidates.

His denial was as emphatic as it was unsurprising. It was, he said, "political poppycock."

Image caption Ian Lavery said Labour had "plenty" of future leaders to choose from

"I think they are fantastic candidates. We have got lots of quality in the Labour Party and it's not just the two who have been mentioned," he added.

More interesting was what he said next. "There's plenty of leaders to pick from, if and when Jeremy decides, of his own volition, that it's not for him at the election."

He concluded, again helpfully: "That isn't the case at this point in time."

So, in the space of one brief moment, the man now appointed to guide Labour through what could become a torrid series of electoral tests has volunteered that, in his judgement, Mr Corbyn may conceivably decide to pass on the leadership "at the election". And that there had been no such decision on Mr Corbyn's part "at this point in time".

All of which can only crank up the volume of whispered speculation.

'Relatively positive'

Against this background, the verdict of Tom Watson, Labour's deputy Labour leader, in his interview with Andrew Marr, perhaps becomes a little more intriguing. He told Marr the party "has got the leadership settled for this Parliament".

As for the mood in the party, much depends on the coming Parliamentary by-elections in the once supposedly "safe" constituencies of Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland in Cumbria.

The new election co-ordinator, who replaced Jon Trickett amid a certain unease at the state of Labour's readiness for the fights ahead, was upbeat. Upbeat, at least up to a point.

"If you look at them separately, they are both relatively positive at this moment in time, despite what he polls might say, despite what individuals might say," he said.

It was not the most ringingly confident assessment I can remember from an election strategist.

If Labour loses one or both of these seats, expect the present simmering unease in the party to approach boiling point once again.