LONDON (AP) — Britain’s major opposition Labour Party was trying to defuse a major row Saturday after a close ally of leader Jeremy Corbyn sought to oust his deputy, a move that prompted a furious outcry from many in the party.
While the attempt to dislodge Tom Watson was ditched after Corbyn intervened, the row laid bare divisions in the party at a time when it should be readying for an expected general election in the next few months against a Conservative government and prime minister racing to take Britain out of the European Union by the scheduled Oct. 31 Brexit date.
“We are supposed to be here this week to fight Boris Johnson, to outline our positive vision for the country at a general election, and I think it’s been undermined on day one,” Watson told cheering supporters as he arrived in the southern England city of Brighton for the start of Labour’s annual conference.
Watson has espoused a number of viewpoints, particularly on Brexit, that angered many of Corbyn’s left-wing supporters but appealed to the Labour Party’s moderate wing.
Watson is a prominent supporter of a holding a second Brexit referendum and urging Labour to campaign for Britain to remain in the EU in any future vote.
Corbyn and many of his allies have been reluctant to take that position, partly over fears it would alienate the Labour voters who backed Brexit in the June 2016 referendum.
Labour moved recently to support a second referendum on any Brexit deal and is due to debate its position further in the coming days at its conference.
On Friday, Jon Lansman, the founder of the pro-Corbyn grassroots Momentum group, proposed a motion for Watson’s job to be scrapped. Many lawmakers voiced opposition, and former Labour prime minister Tony Blair lambasted the move as “undemocratic, damaging and politically dangerous.”
Before Labour’s governing National Executive Committee was set to debate the motion Saturday, Corbyn sought to put a lid on the dispute by proposing that the body should instead carry out a review of the deputy leader’s role.
Heading into conference, Corbyn tried to put a brave face on the row and said he enjoyed working with Watson, who was elected deputy leader at the same time Corbyn took the helm of the Labour Party in September 2015.
“The NEC agreed this morning that we are going to consult on the future of diversifying the deputy leadership position to reflect the diversity of our society,” Corbyn said.
Questioned by reporters, Corbyn refused to say when he first knew about the attempt to oust Watson, nor whether he had full confidence in his deputy.
Watson told BBC radio before the proposal was ditched that the attempt to oust him was akin to “a straight sectarian attack on a broad-church party” and he believed his position on Brexit was behind it.
He said the move against him came as a shock and that he was in a Chinese restaurant in Manchester Friday evening when he learned about it.
Lansman said in a tweet that he welcomed Corbyn’s proposal for a review and added that the party needs “to make sure the deputy leader role is properly accountable to the membership while also unifying the party at conference.”
Whether Corbyn has done enough to keep the row from overshadowing the conference due to end Wednesday remains to be seen. The fissures in the party over Brexit will likely be evident, though.
A draft statement by Labour’s governing body Saturday suggests the party go into a general election without specifying whether it would support remaining in the EU in the promised second referendum.
The statement said the party would get the issue “sorted one way or another” with a referendum within six months if Labour formed the next government.
Pro-EU Labour activists fear the NEC’s approach could be a way of stopping debate on their call for Labour to back remaining in the EU whatever the circumstances.
“This move is just plain wrong,” said Clive Lewis, a Labour lawmaker in the party’s Treasury team.
An election is widely expected to be held in the next few months whether or not the country has left the EU on the scheduled Brexit date of Oct. 31.
Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson tried twice this month to get Parliament to back an election. Labour, in conjunction with other opposition parties, voted against the proposal. They want to make sure a no-deal Brexit is blocked before agreeing to an election.
Parliament is now suspended until Oct. 14, just over two weeks before the U.K. is due to leave the EU. However, it may be forced to return if the Supreme Court decides Johnson broke the law when he suspended Parliament.
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