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Move to scrap deputy leader role may say more about Jeremy Corbyn's future than Tom Watson's

Jeremy Corbyn intervened in the move to scrap the role of deputy leader. Credit: PA

If this year’s Labour conference is all about gearing up for an election, has the party just admitted it doesn’t expect to win one?

The row over whether to abolish the role of Deputy Leader might say less about Tom Watson’s future and more about Jeremy Corbyn’s.

The power struggle between the two has been brewing for years, flaring up over antisemitism, Brexit and the loss of Labour MPs first to Change UK and then to the Lib Dems.

But last night’s attempted coup at the NEC suggests that the Labour leadership is now laser focused on the issue of succession - who will replace Corbyn if he’s forced to resign in the wake of an election defeat?

Clearly those who’ve spent years slowly gaining control of every limb of the party don’t want to risk Watson placing himself at its head.

The long term project has always been to install someone far closer to Corbyn’s politics.

Hence last night’s frantic move at the NEC meeting, which didn’t just catch Watson by surprise as he tucked into a Chinese in Manchester, but also other members of the ruling body who’d assumed they were safe to skip the meeting.

Former Labour leader Ed Miliband denounced the plot. Credit: PA

With the motion to abolish the role of Deputy Leader ruled out of order and the plot bungled at the first attempt, there was a desperate scramble to get to Brighton in time for a potential second go this morning. One member jumped straight on an overnight train as the Deputy Leader’s position looked increasingly precarious.

Such was the extent of the animosity this morning that Watson was barred from dialling in to the NEC meeting from the Midlands, where he was looking after his teenage son. Denied a say and crucially a vote, a major offensive began on his behalf.

“Moderate” MPs, loyal to Tom Watson, began organising on WhatsApp. Appealing to senior members of the shadow cabinet to intervene, they received a message back from the Shadow Chancellor: “I’m on the case”.

Then came major interventions by every living former leader of the Labour Party. I understand a direct appeal was made to Jeremy Corbyn by Gordon Brown, with Tony Blair and Ed Miliband also making public statements denouncing the plot.

Corbyn was told that unless he pulled the motion there would be a media blitz by pretty much every ‘big beast’ in Labour history.

Tom Watson has plenty of support in the Labour Party, too. Credit: PA

And so, just before the meeting this morning, the news came that Corbyn was kicking the can.

A compromise position emerged, promising to review the role of Deputy Leader but not to immediately scrap it. The motion at NEC was pulled, and all-out chaos curtailed.

But the whole episode leaves a lasting rift. Labour MPs tell me there are now two schools of thought forming: stay and fight, or leave en masse.

If Watson had indeed been pushed today, I expect many would have jumped with him.

In practice the issue is now shelved beyond the likely date of an election - assuming we are still heading for one before Christmas.

Reviewing the role of Deputy Leader will take a year or so and by then Corbyn may already have stepped down.

On Tuesday, Watson will get the last word on all of this when he makes his speech at party conference - he told me today he wants an explanation of exactly what Jeremy Corbyn knew of the plot.

Expect further rifts too over Brexit.

Conference may be a chance for the party to rub shoulders, but right now the Brighton sea front looks more like the front line in Labour’s civil war.