In a remarkable turnaround, Labour are favourites to win the next election but their new-found unity is under threat already. Paul Krishnamurty discusses the implications of their latest split over Brexit...
"The market to succeed Corbyn has become a long-term affair and we need to be looking at the emerging class of Labour MPs, mostly loyal to Corbyn, and forget the old guard...The one to back right now is Angela Rayner."
Back in the day when politics was predictable, opposition parties struggled to get airtime as the news agenda primarily focused on the government and it's activities. For two years, the travails, divisions and fast-changing dynamics within Labour have defied that particular piece of conventional wisdom. Just at it seemed the narrative was turning in their favour, the wounds have re-opened.
Yesterday was meant to be about the tortured passing of Theresa May's Queen's Speech - fatally damaged by the election result, weakened in parliament and compromised by her toxic deal with the DUP. Instead, headlines were equally focused on Jeremy Corbyn sacking three front-benchers, after 51 Labour MPs defied the party whip to abstain on Chuka Umunna's amendment, instead backing his call for the UK to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union.
When this piece was initially conceived two days ago, the plan was to explain how Labour could move from opposition to government in the not too distant future. In short - unite and oppose. Use the successful oppositions of David Cameron and Tony Blair as templates. Keep policies light, clear, undivisive with the party and popular. Wait for the government to implode, then sweep to power.
Corbyn could demonstrate unity by giving a couple of big-hitting opponents key roles - Umunna or bringing back Yvette Cooper to replace the hapless Diane Abbott as Shadow Home Secretary. Time it just before the conference, therefore maximising publicity and riding his recent wave of popularity. Suffice to say, that idea looks dead in the water.
Without question, the opportunity to win next time exists. The polls and wider dynamics have moved in their favour. The public is shifting decisively against austerity, economic indicators are worrying, the Tories are crisis-ridden and Brexit could tear them apart. This is not a good time to be in government so this defeat could, in fact, be their perfect result. Long-term demographic trends are terrible for them.
Labour's campaign could barely have been more encouraging. The party demonstrated remarkable unity considering what had gone before and Momentum's social media campaign gained plaudits across the board. Corbyn attracted bigger crowds than anyone since Churchill and inspired much greater turnout among younger and previous non-voters. They won, predictably, the Remain cities and university towns but arguably the best results came in defending their Leave heartlands.
Until yesterday, even news emanating from MPs was positive. In unprecedented scenes, Corbyn was cheered at a PLP meeting, and his name sung by MPs before a photo-shoot. Numerous critics were happy to eat humble pie. Sure, they lost the election but getting over 40% was an unimaginable achievement. Seven weeks earlier, they'd been on 24% and fearing total meltdown.
The doubt, as pre-campaign, was whether Corbyn and his team were strategically up to the job. Would John McDonnell, in particular, overstep the mark. The Shadow Chancellor has already reverted to type by calling the Grenfell tower deaths 'social murder' but even that pales by comparison to yesterday's insanity. Umunna - arguably the most viable leader over the long-term - has just committed political suicide.
It is hard to see what choice Corbyn had other than to sack the rebels. Having just successfully dodged the Tory trap to brand them Brexit saboteurs, Labour would have been slaughtered for going back on this key manifesto commitment. It would have been precisely the gift their opponents need and ruined Corbyn's 'straight-talking' brand.
In fact, with the process still totally unclear, there is no need for the opposition to take anything other than a flexible approach to Brexit negotiations, free to respond to developments and changing opinion.
We can only guess what Umunna's motives were. Was this a bid to build alliances with soft Brexiteers on the Tory side? If so, it was spectacularly ill-judged as they were never going to bring down their own government. If not, it will be seen as positioning for the leadership. In my view, members will on the whole see it as unforgiveable treachery. Chuka's leadership hopes are toast.
The market to succeed Corbyn as Next Labour Leader has, against expectations, become a long-term affair, which could take anything from two to ten years to settle. We need to be looking at the emerging class of Labour MPs, mostly loyal to Corbyn, and forget the old guard from the Miliband, Brown and Blair years. The faces that members will see, discuss and support from now will be the next generation.
It doesn't have to be an ultra-Corbynista. I'm still confident Clive Lewis will emerge as a front-runner. He too has rebelled over Brexit but, unlike Umunna, hasn't staked everything on it. If the Tory version of Brexit softens as expected and becomes the consensus, he'll be well positioned.
However the one to back right now is Angela Rayner at around 20/1. The Shadow Education Secretary starred during the campaign and has rapidly become a senior figure. Next weekend, she is a key speaker alongside Corbyn and Unite chief Len McCluskey at the Durham Miners Gala, for which a 200,000 crowd is expected. At 37, she has age on her side and a fantastic back story. If you don't mind waiting for payday, these odds offer superb long-term trading value. Take what you can.