Nick Brown was credited by MPs with saving the party from blundering straight into a potentially disastrous campaign dominated by Brexit after he staged an intervention with other heavyweights.
Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott this morning branded the idea of an election on December 12 as “ludicrous” but declined to name any month that Labour would be willing to hold one. She said the party could not make any decision until the EU decides how long a Brexit delay it will give to the UK.
She also muddied the waters by suggesting Labour could insist on special legislation in the Commons to prevent any risk of a no-deal Brexit happening while the country goes to the polls, a proposal that took some of her shadow cabinet colleagues by surprise.
“Be in no doubt, party members and the party as a whole is ready for and keen for an election,” she said, declining to give any indication of a date.
A Downing Street source said her comments showed Labour was only interested in delay. “All we hear from them is excuses for why they spend more time blocking Brexit and holding two referendums on Scotland and EU membership.”
Tensions in Labour high command remained high this morning after claims that leader Mr Corbyn’s Left-wing lieutenants, including communications chief Seumas Milne and party chairman Ian Lavery, were still pushing to get the election under way.
The Prime Minister launched his demand for a December election at 5pm yesterday, prompting consternation among Labour MPs who have seen private polling, revealed by the Standard, that shows key seats in danger because of the party’s stance on Brexit. About half the shadow cabinet held an emergency “huddle” at the Commons to agree a response.
Backbenchers said shadow chancellor John McDonnell and shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer also pressed Mr Corbyn not to give the Conservatives a blank cheque.
Mr Brown, a veteran of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s cabinets, warned there would be outright rebellion if backbenchers were asked to vote for their own demise. Afterwards he posted a notice to Labour MPs that they were free to abstain in a vote on an election scheduled for Monday.
However, a rattled-looking Mr Corbyn later recorded a TV interview that left the outcome open-ended. A party source said: “Seumas and Lavery and Jon Trickett got to him and they set about muddying the waters. The whips’ office was furious.”
Another MP said: “Jeremy was taken prisoner by the chief whip, which makes a change from being held hostage by his office staff.”
Party insiders played down claims that some whips threatened to resign but Mr Brown is said to have pushed for a more sceptical line about a December election ahead of this morning’s media rounds.
EU ambassadors were meeting in Brussels to consider the extension to Article 50. Most leaders were said to be happy to accept the recommendation of a January 31 deadline, as requested by the PM following the Benn Act.
But French President Emmanuel Macron has pressed for a short delay of up to a month to focus British minds on getting the deal through.
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the power of prime ministers to call an election was abolished. Mr Johnson needs the support of two-thirds of the Commons — 434 MPs — in a vote to hold an early election.
There are only 287 Conservatives, which means that even with the 35 Scottish Nationalists and 19 Lib Dem MPs, he would need about 80 Labour backers to secure it.
If he cannot make the two thirds majority, Mr Johnson could try to stage a vote of no confidence and ask Tory MPs to bring down their own Government.
Another possibility would be to pass a one-line Bill requiring an election.