Labour would not back an interim government to replace Boris Johnson’s administration that was led by anyone other than Jeremy Corbyn, the shadow chancellor John McDonnell has said.
The party has always been dismissive of the prospect of Labour MPs voting for anyone other than Corbyn to head a cross-party government tasked with the job of avoiding a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, but Corbyn has been careful not to absolutely rule out the prospect.
In an interview published at the weekend McDonnell went further, saying: “There’s no way we would accept that [an interim government without Corbyn as PM].”
The idea is attracting renewed interest at Westminster because, although MPs have passed legislation, the Benn act, designed to rule out a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, No 10 has repeatedly hinted that Johnson might try to circumvent this law. One alternative would be for MPs to seek to replace him with another prime minister willing to negotiate a Brexit delay with the EU in good faith.
Given that a replacement PM could only be elected with the backing of Liberal Democrat MPs and former Tories who have lost the whip for rebelling over Brexit, there has been speculation about whether an anti-Johnson majority could unite behind a respected backbencher like Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman, or even the Speaker, John Bercow.
In an interview with the Italian news organisation La Repubblica, McDonnell said that the normal process, in the event of the prime minister losing a no-confidence vote, was for the leader of the opposition to form a government and that most other opposition parties, like the SNP, accepted that.
He acknowledged that the Lib Dems were resisting the idea that Corbyn should be elected PM in these circumstances, but he added: “I don’t think that [position] will last very long.”
Having someone else lead an interim government “wouldn’t work”, McDonnell went on. “It wouldn’t gain support of Labour MPs, full stop,” he said.
In the event of Johnson losing a confidence vote, McDonnell said that Corbyn should be allowed to form a government and “the other opposition parties will then have to make their minds up because if they don’t swing their support behind Jeremy Corbyn, they will be blamed for the no-deal.”
Corbyn has said that he wants to call a confidence vote when he has the best chance of winning, and that if be became PM he would form a “strictly time-limited, temporary government” to extend article 50 and then call a general election.
Asked if McDonnell’s comments marked a shift in the party’s position, a senior party source said that he was just reflecting reality and that the idea of anyone other than Corbyn leading an interim government was “not a realistic prospect”.
In an interview on the Andrew Marr Show, the shadow attorney general, Shami Chakrabarti, said that the idea of installing the Speaker as head of an interim government was just a “fantasy football” option and “very unlikely”.
But, when asked if she was saying Corbyn would never accept anyone else taking over as caretaker PM, she replied: “I’m not saying that. I just think we’re getting into a level of fantasy around these various permutations of unity governments. It’s just not realistic.”
Chakrabarti also said she did not accept claims that there were up to 40 Labour MPs willing to back the deal proposed by Johnson. They would not accept it because it was a “deregulatory deal” and Labour MPs cared about rights, she said.
But she did suggest that, if Johnson could negotiate a deal acceptable to the Irish government and the EU, Labour might back it because it would be “something more likely to meet our tests”.
Labour MP Lisa Nandy told Sky News that, although she was one of the opposition MPs trying to reach cross-party agreement on an acceptable deal, she did not support what Johnson announced last week because it would put the Good Friday agreement at risk and undermined employment and environmental rights.