Allies of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have warned MPs eyeing bids to succeed him to focus their efforts instead on trying to win Thursday’s general election.
With opinion polls giving the Conservatives a clear lead over Labour, the main opposition party is rife with talk about MPs — including shadow cabinet members — lining up teams for a potential leadership contest within weeks.
But Len McCluskey, a close ally of Mr Corbyn and leader of Unite, the UK’s largest trade union, told the Financial Times that any MPs plotting against the party leadership should instead “concentrate on getting Labour into power” on election day.
John McDonnell, shadow chancellor and another confidante of Mr Corbyn, said potential challengers to the Labour leader would be “wasting a lot of resources” given the party could win the election.
Mr Corbyn’s supporters insist he could defy the odds and triumph on polling day with a radical election manifesto proposing huge increases in taxes and spending to revive public services.
However, many Labour figures believe the election is more likely to herald a severe setback for the “hard-left” party leadership.
A big House of Commons majority for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives would almost certainly trigger Mr Corbyn’s departure and unleash a bloody civil war within Labour about the future direction of the party.
Would Labour tack back towards the centre ground by selecting a more moderate “soft-left” successor to Mr Corbyn such as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer or shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry?
Or would Labour’s leftwing membership — who choose the leader in a vote — opt for a successor to Mr Corbyn who stays true to his radical views?
Tom Hamilton, an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband, cautioned against the idea that defeat for Mr Corbyn at the election would jolt the party back towards the centre ground.
“If Labour loses, it does not automatically follow that the membership will see Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as a failed project,” he said.
“Candidates to succeed him will have to decide whether and how to distance themselves from his legacy — chances are, the best strategy for winning members’ votes will be to praise him, not to bury him.”
Mr Corbyn and his closest aides do not want to let Labour slide back towards the centrist policies of Tony Blair’s “New Labour”.
During the election campaign, the party leadership has been pushing forward some of Mr Corbyn’s most loyal supporters, who sign up to his hard-left agenda and are seen as possible successors to him.
They include shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey and shadow employment rights secretary Laura Pidcock.
“It’s clear that [the Labour leadership] are preparing the ground for the succession, but time is running out to raise the profile of an heir apparent,” said one Labour parliamentary candidate.
As well as Ms Long-Bailey, Ms Pidcock, Mr Starmer and Ms Thornberry, potential successors to Mr Corbyn mentioned by party insiders include shadow education secretary Angela Rayner, shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth and moderate backbench MPs Jess Phillips or David Lammy.
“There are leadership teams being assembled, no doubt about it, and I think we’ll get quite a wide race if Corbyn steps down quickly [after the election],” said another Labour candidate.
A soft-left Labour leader such as Mr Starmer or Ms Thornberry would probably keep many of the tax and spending commitments in the party’s manifesto.
But they would not hold some of Mr Corbyn’s views on foreign policy and defence — he is anti-EU, sceptical of Washington, and opposed to the Trident nuclear deterrent.
Amid the increasing talk about a looming leadership election, Mr Corbyn has rebuffed questions about his future, saying he can still win on December 12.
And some of his supporters say he has a path to power even if Labour does not secure a Commons majority.
The Financial Times poll tracker gives the Conservatives a 10-point lead over Labour, putting them on course for a majority.
But if Mr Corbyn can reduce the gap to 6-7 points in the final days of the campaign, there could be another hung parliament and Labour might be in a better position to form a minority government than the Tories because Mr Johnson has few potential allies.
Labour, by contrast, has the possibility of establishing a minority government with the support — explicit or tacit — of the Scottish National party and the Liberal Democrats.
Labour strategists say this coalition — or more informal arrangement — would last two or three years and be united by the cause of holding a second Brexit referendum.
In this scenario, Mr Corbyn would struggle to implement some of the most radical measures in his manifesto.
Moreover, the Labour leader would probably have to accede to some of the smaller parties’ demands.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has said the price of her support would be a Scottish independence referendum.
Mr Corbyn could also come under pressure to step down given that Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has said she will not put him into Downing Street because of his hard-left views and failure to suppress anti-Semitism within Labour.
If and when Mr Corbyn does relinquish the leadership, his successor is likely to face a huge challenge: rebuilding Labour morale and uniting MPs from the hard-left and more-moderate wings of the party.
“Will the next leader inherit a poisoned chalice? I know I wouldn’t want it,” said one Labour candidate.