The Labour mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has urged the Liberal Democrats to seriously reconsider Jeremy Corbyn’s offer to head a temporary government to stop a no-deal Brexit, as a number of Conservative MPs moved to rule out ever backing the Labour leader.
Khan wrote to the Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, in a letter seen by the Guardian, saying the plan to install a Tory or Labour grandee at the helm of a unity government was not viable.
The mayor, who is likely to face a challenge from the Lib Dems in the election for City Hall in 2020, said: “The Liberal Democrats’ continued insistence that Jeremy Corbyn could not lead this potential unity government is now the single biggest obstacle to stopping no deal.”
Khan, who has previously been an outspoken critic of Corbyn, including on his Brexit policy, said a vote of no confidence and a temporary Labour administration to extend article 50 was the “only certain path” to stopping a no-deal Brexit.
Swinson dismissed Corbyn’s offer on Wednesday but has since said she is open to discussions, while warning that Labour would be unable to get enough Conservative votes – or votes from former Labour MPs sitting as independents – to make the plan viable even with Lib Dem support.
A number of prominent Conservatives working to stop no-deal Brexit have ruled out any mechanism to put Corbyn in No 10.
Dominic Grieve, who has previously suggested he could vote against the government in a confidence vote as a last resort, has said he would not go as far as facilitating a Corbyn government, saying his intention is to meet the Labour leader to talk only about possible mechanisms to stop no deal.
“Jeremy Corbyn is unfortunately a deeply divisive figure and in trying to stop a no-deal Brexit it is not my purpose to help him into Downing Street,” he told the Guardian.
In his letter to Swinson, Khan said it was “crystal clear” that Boris Johnson’s intention was to pursue a no-deal Brexit and said he was writing to Swinson “with a personal plea from one ardent remainer to another”.
“Constitutional experts are warning that there may be only one chance left to stop Boris Johnson delivering a no-deal,” he wrote. “That involves defeating his government in a vote of no confidence as soon as parliament returns in September, and then forming a short-term government of national unity in order to get an extension of article 50 and trigger a general election.”
Khan said an alternative government forged in the 14 days after a no-confidence vote, before the triggering of an automatic general election, was the only guaranteed way to stop no-deal Brexit.
“There is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn is the only viable choice to lead a temporary government of national unity in order to stop no-deal,” he said. “There is simply no viable parliamentary majority or justification for any of the alternatives you have put forward … It is not too late to do the right thing in the national interest and change your position for these crucial talks.”
Conservative MPs also came under heavy pressure on Friday to distance themselves from Corbyn’s proposal. The Labour leader had written to Grieve and fellow Conservative MPs Caroline Spelman and Oliver Letwin, and the former Tory MP Nick Boles, as part of his entreaty on Wednesday to get backing to form a temporary government that would negotiate an extension to article 50 and then call a general election.
In a letter to Corbyn, the four MPs replied: “We agree that our common priority should be to work together in parliament to stop a no-deal Brexit and welcome your invitation to discuss the different ways this might be achieved.”
Grieve said he had no intention of backing Corbyn’s bid to enter No 10, even on a temporary basis, saying he believed the Labour leader was unsuited to the role of forming a unifying cross-party government.
“As I believe a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic, not just economically but also threatening the future of the United Kingdom, I’m working with like-minded parliamentarians to prevent it happening,” he said. “In that context, I’m prepared to speak to any parliamentarian who shares that view, including the leader of the opposition. If he is against no deal, I’m happy to talk. That is very different to thinking he is an appropriate figure to lead a government.”
Spelman, who has been one of the leading sponsors of amendments designed to prevent no deal, said on Thursday she would never vote no confidence in the government or in favour of Corbyn. “I could not support a Corbyn government, end of,” she said.
Other Conservative MPs against no-deal Brexit made similar positions clear on Friday. The former justice secretary David Gauke tweeted: “If anyone thinks the answer is Jeremy Corbyn, I think they’re probably asking the wrong question.”
Just one Tory MP, Guto Bebb, has said he would consider the proposal, saying he believed a short-term Labour government could be “less damaging than the generational damage that would be caused by a no-deal Brexit”.
Swinson was quick to dismiss the idea on Wednesday, calling it “a nonsense”, but on Thursday she wrote to the Labour leader to discuss how the two parties might work together, after coming under pressure from other opposition leaders including the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon.
“I think we have to focus on how we can actually succeed in stopping no-deal because the clock is ticking. And I think it is good to talk to other parties – and I’m doing that,” she told the BBC.
Corbyn himself hit back on Friday, saying it was “not up to Jo Swinson to decide who the next prime minister is going to be”.
Swinson had proposed Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman, the longest serving male and female MPs, as neutral figures who could lead a temporary government – something allies of both Clarke and Harman suggested they may be willing to do.
Swinson’s stance was backed by two former Lib Dem leaders, who told the Guardian her judgment was correct that Corbyn’s plan would not succeed.
Her predecessor Vince Cable said: “The Lib Dem view is that no party should be playing self-indulgent games trying to form an alternative government when clearly they don’t have support. It has to be a non-party initiative, led by people who have no ambitions for themselves or their party.”
Tim Farron, who led the party into the 2017 election, called Corbyn’s offer “a transparent and disingenuous power grab that clearly wouldn’t work and [would] only play into Johnson’s hands”.
Several Lib Dem sources said they believed the party had made the wrong call to reject the proposal outright, citing the backlash from remainers. “When the New European is criticising the Lib Dems, you know you’ve got it wrong,” one said.