Jeremy Corbyn has responded to speculation that Boris Johnson is planning a general election by stating that he “will be delighted” when it comes, telling supporters: “We will win and defeat this lot.”
The Labour leader made the remarks after giving a wide-ranging speech in Salford on Monday that was largely seen as a pitch to prospective voters in a snap election and focused on the party’s manifesto promises and support for the north of England.
However, his attempts to put Labour on a general election footing were somewhat undermined by contradictory statements made by senior party figures suggesting that legislation to stop no deal should take precedence over a national poll.
Corbyn is due to host leaders of other opposition parties in his offices on Tuesday morning to discuss cross-party legislation to block no deal to be laid in the Commons later in the day. MPs attending are understood to include the Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, Ian Blackford of the Scottish National party, Liz Saville Roberts of Plaid Cymru, Anna Soubry of Change UK and the Green party’s Caroline Lucas.
The Labour leader told the audience in Salford that the party’s priority was trying to pass the bill. However, when he was asked if he would back a general election, he said he would, even in event that the prime minister put it forward for a vote himself.
An hour later, Jenny Chapman, a shadow Brexit minister, told the BBC that an election was a secondary issue. She said: “Our mission here is to prevent no deal. We do want a general election … [but] our mission is very clear, and it is about preventing no deal. If that means that a general election cannot happen at that particular point, then stopping no deal must come first.”
But on Monday evening, Corbyn reiterated his eagerness to go to the country: “I will be delighted when the election comes. I’m ready for it, you’re ready for it – we’ll take that message out there and we will win and defeat this lot.”
A senior Labour source said that avoiding no deal and wanting a general election could run concurrently as party policies and discussions about timing were an attempt to “split hairs”.
Earlier, the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, said Labour was working with other parties to deliver the no-deal legislation in parliament, but also supported a general election and that the shadow cabinet was working on a bigger manifesto than Labour’s 2017 platform.
However, the Labour leadership faced criticism for expressing enthusiasm at the prospect of an election. Former frontbencher Owen Smith, who challenged Corbyn for the party leadership in 2016, tweeted that Corbyn should not fall for Johnson’s stratagem, which could serve to shore up and deliver his vision of a hard Brexit.
The former Labour prime minister Tony Blair gave a speech to the Institute for Government earlier on Monday in which he urged against the “elephant trap” of an election before the UK’s departure from the EU was resolved and warned that polling rated Labour as unlikely to win.
Corbyn touched on the majority of the party’s policy areas during the 30-minute address in Salford and focused particularly on pledges for the north of England, in what could be seen as overtures to Labour supporters in leave-voting areas.
Promises to invest in Crossrail in the north, which would link Liverpool and Hull, received a cheer from the audience, and he pledged to rebalance the economy away from London, reverse council cuts and invest in manufacturing.
Corbyn said Labour was prepared to work with other parties to stop no deal. “We will do everything we can to stop a no-deal exit from the European Union. That is our priority,” he said.
A vote of no confidence in Johnson also remained on the table, he said: “We will do everything we can in the coming weeks to prevent no deal. We want a general election so the people of this country can decide their future and we are very clear that we would in the Labour manifesto include a public vote under a Labour government with the option of remain or whatever alternative parliament has come to.
“If it’s no deal, then we vote to remain. If it’s any other deal, then our party’s democratic processes will decide what position we take.”
Long-Bailey said: “Ultimately, we are in a position now where we’ve got to put country before party to stop a no-deal Brexit from happening and any MP shouldn’t be precious about what piece of legislation [is put] down as long as it does what it says on the tin.”
The shadow cabinet met in Salford on Monday afternoon to finalise their position. A source said there had been a “bit of back and forth” between MPs but that they had galvanised around the proposed no-deal legislation.
“We haven’t had any pushback on the bill,” a source close to the shadow cabinet said.