With a general election within touching distance, Labour’s conference in Brighton was meant to be a showcase for its radical policies and an opportunity to enthuse grassroots members about the project of propelling Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.
Instead, it kicked off on Friday evening with a botched bid to oust Tom Watson by abolishing his job and has continued with a battle over Brexit, pitching Corbyn and his trade union allies against thousands of grassroots members.
Watson was eating a Chinese meal with his son in Manchester when he received the news that Jon Lansman had tabled a last-minute motion at the national executive committee (NEC), calling for the century-old post of deputy leader to be scrapped.
It was only because the NEC chair, Wendy Nichols, ruled the motion out of order that the bid failed – because overturning her decision would have required a two-thirds majority.
After a fearsome backlash overnight, Corbyn tabled a compromise motion at Saturday’s NEC meeting in Brighton, calling instead for the position of deputy leader to be reviewed – a process he has suggested could result in another deputy being appointed.
But in the intervening 12 hours or so, MPs’ WhatsApp groups had buzzed with wild suggestions of challenging Corbyn for the leadership, breaking away en masse from Labour – and even following Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger to the Lib Dems.
One MP said: “We weren’t far off something on Saturday. There could have been a split. It was nearly the final straw.”
In the bars and restaurants of the drizzle-drenched seaside town, shadow ministers speculated openly that Corbyn’s key lieutenants were beginning to think about how the left could retain control of Labour should the party lose a general election, forcing him to step aside.
A reinvigorated Watson arrived in Brighton to cheers from activists and gave a defiant speech at the conference rally of his Labour First grouping, calling for the party to support remaining in the EU.
As the aftershocks of the botched coup continued to resound, the Sunday Times revealed details on Saturday evening of a memo Corbyn’s policy chief, Andrew Fisher, sent earlier this week, as he told the Labour leader he wanted to step aside.
Fisher is well liked, and he and Corbyn are very close, with some colleagues even comparing theirs to a father-son relationship.
As the Labour leader faced questions from Andrew Marr about Fisher’s remarks regarding the “blizzard of lies” emanating from Corbyn’s office, his aide, Seumas Milne, sat alongside Fisher in the green room.
One observer said: “It was incredibly awkward. Seumas was cracking unfunny jokes while Fisher pretended that Corbyn was not being interviewed about his resignation letter.”
Milne and Fisher have frequently differed, Labour insiders suggested, with the pair having different backgrounds and styles. One shadow minister said Corbyn was really upset about Fisher’s decision to step aside at the end of the year, saying: “He can’t seem to mediate, adjudicate or be assertive, and there have been unresolved tensions in his office for a long time.”
On Brexit, Fisher has taken what friends call a softer position than that being pushed by Corbyn and his union backers. He is not an ardent remainer, and was supportive of the party’s constructive ambiguity on Brexit in 2017, but has become increasingly concerned about the electoral risks of trying to play to both sides of the argument, as public opinion has polarised.
Corbyn gave a carefully worded answer to the question of whether he had known in advance about the putsch against Watson. “I was not aware that the particular motion was going to be moved at that time but I knew they would be discussing options,” he told the BBC on Sunday.
Lansman has told friends he believed he had Corbyn’s tacit backing for the move, which also appears to have had the nod from his chief of staff, Karie Murphy.
Watson’s hostilities with Lansman show no sign of abating, with reports that the deputy leader shouted at him on Sunday afternoon: “It’s the hitman that missed!”
Corbyn allies say the Labour leader was particularly infuriated by a recent speech by Watson, which coincided with the TUC conference, also in Brighton. The speech had been long planned, but it cut across the announcement of a new Brexit stance, agreed with union leaders that deliberately held open the possibility of Labour supporting leave in a future referendum.
Despite the speech having been briefed out to the media, Corbyn’s aides made a last-ditch attempt to have it cancelled. Such was the leadership’s fury, Watson believed he was being warned that he could be stripped of his role as shadow culture, media and sport secretary.
When the party agreed to support a “public vote” on Brexit back in the summer, after a fraught period of internecine wrangling, Corbyn and his close advisers felt they had made a significant concession.
But the issue was always going to re-emerge with a vengeance when the manifesto for a general election had to be drawn up – and that moment has necessarily been brought forward, by Boris Johnson’s “do or die” approach to Brexit.
Meanwhile, Labour MPs have been poring over the catastrophic results from May’s European elections and watching the Lib Dems riding high in the polls under Jo Swinson.
Even some who represent leave-voting constituencies fear that the Lib Dems and Greens could hoover up the votes of many of the remainers who would otherwise support Labour – and allow the Tories to come through the middle.
But Corbyn has been urged, not least by Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the Unite union, to take a tougher line against dissenters from Labour policy.
That determination lies behind the attempt to purge Watson, but also behind the fierce procedural wrangle that broke out on Brighton on Sunday, as Corbyn’s backers on the NEC sought to impose their stance on conference.
The irony was not lost on anti-Brexit campaigners, of Corbyn, a longtime supporter of Tony Benn’s Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), allying with trade unions to impose a policy on grassroots party members, many of whom joined to support his people-powered movement.
It is unclear what the outcome of Monday’s Brexit votes on the conference floor will be – and whether whatever is passed could yet be overridden as Fisher drafts the 2019 manifesto. But Corbyn’s effort to present a united front in Brighton has dismally failed.