On the surface, Jeremy Corbyn’s pitch to become caretaker prime minister of a government of national unity after overthrowing Boris Johnson looks like a messy failure. The Liberal Democrats have said they won’t back him, two of the Tories who he wrote to have backed away too, and the Independent Group for Change (which he didn’t write to) have said this evening that they will ‘not support nor facilitate any government led by Jeremy Corbyn’.
Instead, everyone is talking about the possibility of a government led by Ken Clarke. The former Tory chancellor today said he wouldn’t object to taking over if it was ‘the only way’ to stop a no-deal Brexit. But he also showed quite how relaxed he is about, well everything, when he revealed that he hadn’t been following the news for the past fortnight and so had no idea that everyone was talking about him as a possible national leader.
That’s not to say that Corbyn will be disappointed with the way this week in politics is ending. In fact, his whole bid has been unusually smart politics. He has managed to paint the choice as being either him as Prime Minister or a no-deal Brexit. There are a number of MPs for whom neither choice is at all palatable, but if they say they’re opposed to Corbyn, they find themselves having to explain why that doesn’t mean that they’re suddenly in favour of Britain ‘crashing out’ of the European Union. Thus MPs who are both anti-racism and anti-no deal are now in a very uncomfortable position. They now have to work out how to change the narrative that they are choosing to let no deal go ahead by saying they won’t support Jeremy Corbyn.
This is tough for Labour and independent MPs, but it is particularly hard for the Liberal Democrats. Jo Swinson has opposed Corbyn’s plan not on the grounds that she thinks he is a deeply unsuitable candidate for prime minister who seems to trip accidentally into supporting anti-Semites on a regular basis, but because she says he just doesn’t have the numbers. The Liberal Democrats may have to toughen their message on Corbyn in order to avoid being accused of not being sufficiently tough on Brexit.
For Corbyn’s team, this week has probably actually been a win. It is a step towards recovering the party’s position on Brexit after the battering that Labour took in the European elections. Now, the framing has changed from the Lib Dems making life difficult for Labour by being so clear on Brexit to Labour making life difficult for the Lib Dems.