It’s the first day of Labour conference and Jeremy Corbyn has kicked proceedings off with an appearance on the Andrew Marr show. The Labour leader was grilled on a range of topics from anti-Semitism and ‘English irony’ to his party’s Brexit position. Corbyn put in a relaxed performance, insisting that he loved ‘every minute’ of being Labour leader. However, his sharp intake of breath when he was asked about tricky topics suggest that it isn’t all plain-sailing. While his defence of his response to a variety of anti-Semitic incidents was typically evasive (he admitted he was ‘perhaps too hasty’ in his defence of an anti-Semitic mural), it’s Corbyn’s Brexit comments that will have the most impact on the upcoming conference.
After a disastrous week for Theresa May’s Brexit strategy, it’s now Jeremy Corbyn’s turn to have his party’s policy tested. With Labour members gathering in Liverpool, the item that’s top of their agenda is Brexit. A poll in the Observer today reports that 86pc of Labour members want a second referendum – the problem is this is not currently Labour policy. Aside from Corbyn being a Eurosceptic, there are concerns in Labour high command that a second referendum policy could isolate some Labour voters. Speaking on Marr, Corbyn said that if members backed a second referendum at conference he would listen to them:
‘We’re having a debate at our conference and we will come to a conclusion on that. Our preference is that we will demand our six tests against the government and our preference would be for a general election and then we can negotiate our future relationship with Europe but let’s see what comes out of conference.’
Asked if he felt bound by what the membership decided, Corbyn replied ‘obviously’. However, he was somewhat more vague on the issue of whether the membership would be given a clear vote this week on whether to make seeking a second referendum party policy.
His comments stopped short of his deputy Tom Watson. In what could be interpreted as light-trolling, Watson told Ridge on Sunday that it was a clear cut issue for the Labour leadership – if the members want it then they must get it. Corbyn gave himself some wriggle room this morning by saying he will act only on what the exact motion is. The expectation is that rather than a clear cut motion on a second referendum that would have to go in the manifesto, it will be closer to a fudge that allows for a second referendum as a possibility – but falls short of making it the aim. As I reported in the Spectator last month, this would still be enough to aid the ‘People’s Vote’ strategy.
Corbyn was clear that his preference would be an early election rather than a referendum. In other unsurprising news, he made clear that he had no plans to support Chequers. When Marr pointed out that his party’s policy could be accused of cherry-picking, he played to his base by arguing that the difference between his position and the Tories’ is that his party does not want to lower standards – claiming Liam Fox does.
Overall, it was a confident performance but it also raised questions about Corbyn’s strength. This time last year, the Leader’s Office managed to keep Brexit off the conference floor as an issue for debate. That option wasn’t open to them this year with increased divisions over Brexit. It follows that Corbyn has had little choice but to say that he will listen to the members on Brexit. How much control Corbyn still wields on the party membership will become clear in the coming days when the motion is decided.