The vultures were reportedly beginning to circle even before a vote was cast in Batley and Spen this morning. The Times reports that supporters of Angela Rayner have been busy canvassing support among MPs and trade unions for a leadership challenge should Labour lose the seat. Rayner denied all knowledge late last night.
Er, that's why it's called a newspaper Ange.
In recent polls about the Labour leadership question, Rayner struggles to get a mention. In a YouGov poll of 871 Labour members for Sky News yesterday, just 12 per cent thought she'd do a better job than Starmer. In a Redfield and Wilton poll a month ago the public were asked who they would prefer to see as Starmer's replacement. Rayner's name does not even register.
The common link between these two polls was the runaway favourite, Andy Burnham. He picked up 69 per cent in the YouGov poll, compared with 35 per cent for Yvette Cooper (yes, really). In the straight answer Redfield and Wilton poll he received 22 per cent against five per cent each for the joint runners-up.
It's clear that the establishment want Burnham too, but there is a major stumbling block - he's not an MP. The mayor's most recent statement about his leadership ambitions are cryptic. He told the New Statesman this week: "I get asked it relentlessly: would I ever go back? So the answer is, I would, but it’s not any time soon. I’m supporting Keir - I want him to win the next general election, and I will do whatever I can to help him achieve that. If there was a moment where that was right, then I’ve indicated that I would be prepared to go back. But I wouldn’t put the old suit back on - it would be to go back as something different".
That last statement is an acknowledgement of his previous failures. He would have to at least publicly change his Blairite tune, having already fought and lost two leadership elections. In 2010 he finished fourth from five candidates, behind the Miliband brothers and Ed Balls. With nine per cent in the first round he just about beat Diane Abbott. Five years later he fought again and did much better, finishing second from four candidates, albeit on just 19 per cent compared to Corbyn's whopping 60 per cent.
Burnham's 'time' may well turn out to be 2024. That is the year his latest term as Mayor of Greater Manchester ends and it is also the date of the next general election. Whoever is Labour leader going into that election, they are likely to come out of it with a resignation. Third time lucky, Andy?
As for the likelihood of a leadership challenge in the here and now, the chances are good. Starmer got a reprieve in May, but one of the consequences of those elections was Batley and Spen. He is unlikely to fend off a challenge following another devastating defeat in the north. And the chances for defeat in today's by-election are odds-on according to the bookies. William Hill have got the Tories at 1/6 with Labour lagging way behind on 7/2.
Senior Labour sources have told The Guardian that the party has as little as a five per cent chance of holding the seat. An unnamed MP added: "At the beginning, I would have said it was not like Hartlepool. Now, I’ve changed my mind - I think we’re going to lose it".
Defeat in Batley and rising discontent are perfect conditions for Rayner's ego to propel her into a challenge. Her nomination would probably stave off a challenge to Starmer from the hard left, as Rayner has sympathisers on both wings of the party. In any case, the hard left do not have the numbers in the Parliamentary Labour Party in order to mount a challenge. Needless to say, Rayner would be a disaster as Labour leader, but there is no guarantee that she would win against Starmer in the first place. The future is grim for Sir Keir, either way.