Labour MPs hoping to remove Jeremy Corbyn from office have been dealt a major blow after the party’s ruling body decided he did not need the support of colleagues to stand for the leadership again.
The Labour leader’s claim that he should automatically be on the ballot was passed by a margin of just four votes – including his own – in a fraught meeting of the National Executive Committee.
However, there was also a boost for Labour rebels after rules that allowed anyone to vote in the leadership contest last summer by paying just £3 were ditched.
Instead the price has been increased to £25, while full-time members must have been affiliated to the party for at least six months to vote – barring the 100,000 new members who joined in recent weeks.
The members of the NEC voted that Mr Corbyn should automatically be included on the leadership ballot by 18 to 14 following a heated meeting that lasted almost six hours.
There was speculation that the Labour Party could formally challenge the vote through the courts last night, though leading moderates played down the chances of that.
Speaking to cheering supporters, Mr Corbyn effectively launched his re-election campaign by saying he would take his message of fighting inequality across the country to “strengthen” Labour.
“I’m delighted to say the Labour NEC has decided that the leader is automatically on the ballot paper,” he said outside the central London office where the meeting had taken place.
“We will be campaigning on all the things that matter… That will strengthen our party in order to defeat this Tory government and bring in a government that cares for ordinary people.”
Labour rebels were left infuriated by the decision, claiming the trade unions that voted in favour of Mr Corbyn had “done us over” by propping him up. They also warned he did not have the “moral authority” to lead.
They must now attempt to defeat a Labour leader who won an overwhelming majority from party members less than a year ago.
The NEC meeting also saw Labour rebels and Corbyn supporters clash over whether he needed the backing of 51 MPs and MEP to re-run for the Labour leadership.
Both sides produced legal advice about the party rules as moderates argued he needed the backing of colleagues to run and Corbyn allies said that was not necessary.
At one point, Mr Corbyn was reportedly asked to step out of the room so those present could decide whether to hold a secret ballot. He was reported to have initially refused to do so – although his office denied the claim.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waves to supporters as he arrives at the National Executive meeting. Credit: Getty Images Labour rebels were offered hope when those present agreed to a secret ballot, offering Corbyn critics the cover to vote against their leader while remaining anonymous.
Mr Corbyn’s allies were prepared to seek an injunction against the Labour Party to delay the vote until a ruling on the dispute from the High Court.
Sources close to the Labour leader also told The Telegraph his office was considering whether it was worth Mr Corbyn resigning, lowering the bar of MPs’ support he needed from 51 to 38.
However those considerations were not needed after it was announced that the NEC had voted with Mr Corbyn and decided he did not need the support of MPs to re-run for the leadership.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor and Mr Corbyn’s closest ally, said: “Jeremy on the ballot, democracy prevails. We will use [the] leadership election to sign up even more members and prepare ground for General Election.”
Ms Eagle, who triggered the contest this week, said: “I am glad the NEC has come to a decision. I welcome the contest ahead and I am determined to win it.”
John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former director of political operations, told Sky News that trade unions who voted with Mr Corbyn had “stabbed the party in the heart”.
“This is the end of the Labour Party, nothing more or less than that … the unions have destroyed the Labour Party,” he said.
Michael Dugher, the former shadow culture secretary and Corbyn critic, said: “If you can’t even get one in five of your own party in parliament to have confidence in you, what possible moral authority do you have?”
Mr Corbyn said he hoped his opponents would not mount a legal challenge over the decision. Pledging to campaign “on all the things that matter”, he said anyone who had any disagreements should “come and talk about it”.
Mr Corbyn said: ” I have been elected, last year, 10 months ago, with a very large mandate. I respect that mandate. It’s a responsibility I’m carrying out.
“I would hope there isn’t going to be a legal challenge. There’s been a very long legal discussion this afternoon. There were very well-qualified lawyers on hand to advise, so I think we are fine.”
There was a buoyant response at a Keep Corbyn event in Kentish Town, north London, attended by more than a thousand supporters of the Labour leader.
When the news broke, crowds gathered outside the fundraiser cheered and clapped in jubilation.