Labour’s annual gathering by Brighton’s windswept seafront was meant to be a chance for Britain’s opposition party to showcase its radical policies ahead of a general election.
Instead, the opening days of the conference have been overshadowed by internecine warfare, a high-profile resignation and policy bust-ups over Brexit and the green economy.
“It’s happened all over again, we just can’t help ourselves,” said one union general secretary, his head almost in his hands. “It looks like we are more focused on our own problems than helping the country at large.”
One Labour aide said that the party’s anthem was meant to be the Red Flag: “But right now it feels more like the Benny Hill theme.”
Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn was forced to dismiss rumours he is close to stepping down after an exhausting four years at the helm of Britain’s main opposition party.
Colleagues say the 70-year old came near to resigning earlier in the year. but is now reinvigorated by the thought of an election campaign. But they believe he would step down quickly if Labour lost.
Mr Corbyn announced an end to prescription charges, the scrapping of schools regulator Ofsted, loans for electric cars and an end to non-dom status.
But these policy giveaways were overshadowed by the never-ending row over Mr Corbyn’s Brexit policy: he wants a Labour government to negotiate a new EU deal and then hold a second referendum. Before the start of the referendum campaign the party would decide whether to back Out or In. His attempts to cling to that compromise position on Brexit has failed to please the party’s overwhelmingly pro-EU membership
The poison coursing through the Labour ranks spilled into the open on Friday night when Jon Lansman, founder of the pro-Corbyn movement Momentum, tried to use a meeting of the party’s national executive committee (NEC) to axe the role of deputy leader, currently held by Tom Watson.
That manoeuvre against Mr Watson, an internal critic of the leadership, was only abandoned after an intervention by Mr Corbyn on Saturday morning, under pressure from moderate MPs and union leaders.
Mr Corbyn has instead proposed changes to the rules in order to “reflect gender and ethnic balance in our society” — a move that would dilute Mr Watson’s power through the back door.
Mr Lansman told friends he was acting solo but colleagues were sceptical. “I can’t imagine he just turned up and said ‘I want to get rid of Tom’,” said one. “I’m sure Jeremy’s team knew about this in advance.”
Instead one senior Labour party official described the attempted putsch as “insane”, pointing the finger of blame at Karie Murphy, the executive director of Mr Corbyn’s office, and Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite the Union. “Lansman was just doing their dirty work,” he claimed.
On Sunday Mr Watson told a packed fringe event that Mr Lansman had tried to “abolish me” because of his pro-Remain position on Brexit. “I have one message for Jon Lansman — I am remaining,” he said. “I may have taken off some weight but I am no pushover.”
Members of the shadow cabinet believe the attack was triggered by a desire to ensure the Corbyn political project continues if and when the leader steps down. One frontbencher described the failed effort to remove Mr Watson as “clumsy and oddly timed”.
Meanwhile several senior MPs sought to burnish their pro-EU, anti-Brexit credentials ahead of a widely expected leadership race if Mr Corbyn resigns in the coming months.
They include Sadiq Khan, Labour mayor of London, who said staying neutral was “simply not an option.”
Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary, appeared at a rally on Saturday wearing a royal blue blouse with a string of yellow stars around her neck — echoing the EU flag. She said Labour should not only campaign for Remain but “lead the campaign for Remain” in any circumstances.
That prompted a counter-attack by Mr McCluskey who, when asked about Ms Thornberry, told Sky News that any members of the shadow cabinet who disagreed with the leader’s Brexit policy should “step aside” if they were unable to “sing from the same hymn sheet”.
Pro-Remain groups pushing for a change in Brexit policy were aghast after the NEC manoeuvred to try to thwart their efforts over the weekend. At the same time, Unison and Usdaw argued behind closed doors to shift Brexit policy yet again.
Meanwhile leftwing constituency Labour parties (CLPs) pushing for the party to adopt a set of radical climate change policies — including a 2030 zero-carbon target — were left disappointed, at least for now, after the GMB union intervened to try to block the move. One union figure dismissed the activists as “tree-huggers” who were “living in cloud cuckoo land.”
Mr Corbyn, who denied rumours of his impending departure as the “wishful thinking” of his enemies, said he was ready for a general election and would serve a full term as prime minister.
But one close ally of Mr Corbyn said this could be his last party conference as leader. “Jeremy is 70, but he has one last big campaign in him. He’s geared up for an election this year. If he wins, he’ll serve a year or two as prime minister before making way for someone younger,” the individual said. “If he loses, he’ll hang around long enough to ensure his chosen successor gets the job.”
One MP said the Corbyn team was on the back foot with Labour now struggling to hold off the rival Liberal Democrats in the opinion polls. “It does rather look like the Corbyn project is imploding,” she said.
Andrew Fisher, the head of policy, who wrote the 2017 Labour manifesto, announced on Saturday evening that he was leaving within months.
The Sunday Times reported that Mr Fisher launched a lacerating parting shot against Mr Corbyn’s inner circle in a private memo attacking the “blizzard of lies and excuses” in the leader’s team as well as its “lack of professionalism, competence and human decency”, concluding: “I no longer have faith we will succeed”.
Mr Corbyn confirmed the memo was genuine, saying: “I think he said that because he was extremely distressed at that point about discussions going on in the office.”