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Andrew Vine: Labour MPs can’t keep on dodging questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s conduct

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IS this really the next Government we have been seeing these past few days at the Labour conference?

Will Jeremy Corbyn in his closing speech tomorrow be the leader that a divided Britain, uncertain of its future, will put its faith in whenever the next election comes? Is he a figure who would unite, or deepen divisions?

Is Jeremy Corbyn a Prime Minister in waiting?

Is Jeremy Corbyn a Prime Minister in waiting?

The conference has raised more questions about Labour, rather than providing answers, and one of them nags more urgently than any other. How credible is Labour as a party of government in its current form?

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It is a question that the party has largely been able to sidestep for at least a year, thanks to the disarray and infighting within the Government over Brexit. Whether Mr Corbyn realises it or not, he has been blessed with extraordinary luck.

A lame-duck Prime Minister virtually held hostage by the right wing of her own party, trying to govern against a constant muttering over when, or by whom, she will be deposed has given the Labour leader an easy ride.

He hasn’t really been pressed over policy issues, or even set out a detailed strategy over how he would tackle Brexit. Nor has he needed to prod and challenge the Government to expose its failings, because it has done the job for him.

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But Labour cannot sidestep the issue of credibility any longer if it is eventually to persuade the electorate to trust it to run the country.

The euphoria of Mr Corbyn’s supporters cannot obscure the fact that when he fought a general election against an already troubled Theresa May and a Conservative Party fragmenting before the nation’s eyes, he came nowhere near winning.

His left-wing manifesto was too much for an electorate whose choice of governments since the early 1990s has leaned firmly towards moderate, centrist policies, whether espoused by Labour or the Tories.

Opinion polls don’t show Labour opening up a decisive lead. The only area where support for Mr Corbyn’s policies is unquestionably solid is for renationalisation of the railways, which is understandable given the shambles that the Government has made of running the trains.

And Mrs May’s travails have also done much to disguise the fact that Labour is not a party at ease with itself.

A short ferry ride across the Mersey from the conference hall lies Birkenhead, where the widely-respected MP Frank Field has resigned the Labour whip, protesting that his own party is “a force for anti-Semitism”.

The excoriating personal criticism of Mr Corbyn over the same issue by Dame Margaret Hodge has raised troubling questions over his judgement.

Other sensible MPs of moderate views, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker and Joan Ryan, are in trouble having lost votes of confidence by their own constituency parties amid growing unease that hard-left factions are intent on purging those who do not share Mr Corbyn’s politics.

It has long been clear that substantial numbers of Labour MPs do not support his leadership, which is central to the question of the party’s credibility to govern.

When an election comes, will they look voters in the eye and tell them that Mr Corbyn is the right man to be Prime Minister? I asked that question of a Labour candidate at the last election, and watched as he tied himself in knots.

But it is a question that ultimately has to be answered by the many Labour MPs who give the impression of sitting on their hands and hoping that something will turn up to solve their dilemma.

If they do not support him, they cannot say so, for fear of being targeted by acolytes who will press for their deselection as candidates. Nor can they say publicly what many will admit in private, that they do not believe Mr Corbyn is fit to be Prime Minister.

Another challenge to his leadership is out of the question, not least because it would provoke the fury of his supporters, and talk of forming a new centrist party to which moderate Labour MPs and supporters might defect is just so much wishful thinking.

All of which adds up to a Labour Party which, beneath the routine razzamatazz of a party conference with its standing ovations and shows of unity, mirrors the difficulties and divisions of the Conservatives.

Labour rifts will have to come to a head at some point, and those MPs who stay largely silent about their reservations over Mr Corbyn will have no option but to speak out.

In his speech tomorrow, he is vanishingly unlikely to do anything to heal the divisions in the party. Nothing in his long political career points to compromise rather than sticking firmly to an old-fashioned leftist outlook. And that will only make the nagging question over Labour’s credibility even more pressing.