For something that has yet to and may never happen, Brexit has reordered the fundamentals of British politics in just three years. The Tories have shifted decisively from post-Thatcher ambivalence about their role as upholders of the prevailing order to a right-wing radicalism that views Parliament, the legal establishment, and captains of industry as threats to, rather than pillars of, British freedom.
Electoral reformers who once downplayed the time-honoured link between constituent and parliamentarian now laud MPs who spurn a national result in deference to local opinion. Cultural identity has replaced austerity as the motor of progressive antagonism towards the Tories, who in turn have lost all interest in fiscal prudence and economic growth.
One of the more surreptitious evolutions has been the quiet mutation of Corbynism. It has gone from a project of the transformative left to one of managerial populism — Miliband’s Labour with more oomph and some Newsnight Bolsheviks to tour the TV studios. The starting points of this triangulation — welcome back, old friend — can be found in Labour’s 2017 manifesto, which committed to renewing Trident and implementing 78 per cent of planned Tory welfare cuts. The party’s meticulous ambiguity on Brexit has allowed it to pander to two conflicting constituencies while appearing to take a moderate, if scarcely decipherable, position.
The Tom Watsons and Keir Starmers are no longer needed to confer respectability, such as either retains, because their leader and Shadow Chancellor have spruced up. Corbyn is more careful with his words and his associations; McDonnell now sports a fetching line in Sophy Ridge-wear; open-necked shirts and avuncular pull-overs, perfect for projecting good-humoured reasonableness on Sunday morning TV.
Corbynism has made itself respectable and it couldn’t have come at a worse time for the country. Parliamentarians appear on the cusp of thwarting Brexit and the surest way to do that is to install a Prime Minister of their choosing to ask Brussels for a lengthy extension. Jeremy Corbyn is not the ideal candidate. He is at least as committed to Brexit as Boris Johnson, except that he actually believes it. However, needs must and the Remain parliament knows that, unless the leader’s office backs down, Labour MPs won’t vote for anyone other than Corbyn as interim PM. Because Parliament is determined to show the voters who’s boss, it will eventually have to accept that Corbyn is the only option.
This means there is a very real chance Corbyn will become Prime Minister. Even for some who disapprove of the man, this is a price worth paying to take back control from the voters. They calculate that he would jettison his Brexiteerism (and any other principle) to wheedle his way into Number 10. What he does when he gets there is another matter, and the histrionic liberals willing to pave his way would soon learn that a Stalinist cult, given a taste of power, will not readily relinquish it.
Those who would put Corbyn in Downing Street point to the depredations Brexit is predicted to inflict, job losses, medicine shortages and trade disruptions, are worth staving off even if it means sacrificing popular democracy. They may be right. There are some of us, probably not many, who lament Brexit but sincerely believe Corbyn would be worse. It’s not that we deny the perils of no-deal for good governance and economic stability (though anyone touting a Corbyn premiership can hardly pray in aid such concerns); it is that we assess the moral fallout of Corbyn to be graver than the financial consequences of no-deal Brexit.
Brexit is transient but Corbyn is forever. Even if the worst Yellowhammer contingencies came to pass, the material deprivations caused could be remedied. The taint of Corbyn cannot be scoured away because it is less a matter of what he might do than what we would be saying as a country. Three years ago, MPs wept in the Commons for Jo Cox. Now they would be adopting as their figurehead a man arrested at a ‘solidarity’ demo for the killer of Tory MP Anthony Berry. It would be a betrayal of our past and a message to posterity: there is no outrage so great that it cannot be waited out, unrepentantly, with the connivance of your feckless, career-driven colleagues.
The political chaos of Brexit pales against the moral chaos of an antisemite becoming Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in living memory of the Holocaust. The past four years have been among the most distressing and frightening for British Jews since the war. For parliament to give its imprimatur to the man responsible would be to reduce antisemitism to a competition of interests rather than a test of moral fortitude. MPs would be setting the rights of Jews against the political and economic well-being of the nation in a way no Parliament has done since Emancipation. They would be aligning the national interest with the toleration of antisemitism.
This outlook defies cool analysis and frustrates those who view politics coolly. They see it as a priggishly moralistic view but far from impractical idealism, Never Corbyn is the true realist perspective because it requires proponents to recognise that politics is the interaction of priorities with opportunities and that denying an opponent power is sometimes the maximal expression of the will that can be achieved.
Never Corbyners don’t pretend you can resist antisemitism while putting an antisemite in power. This doesn’t make us smarter or more moral than anyone else; it is weary dejection, not virtue-signalling. I am a Never Corbyner and I feel the weariness. There is no circumstance or exigency in which I could support his coming to power and so I have to make my choices. They are these: anything, anyone, any outcome but Corbyn. A Remainer, I would rather no-deal; a democrat, I would rather no Brexit; a Unionist, I would rather Scottish independence. Whatever the costs, the costs of Corbyn will always be higher.