My piece for Coffee House last week likened Boris Johnson to the naked emperor, puffed up with self-importance but devoid of real power. As the Tory party conference has got underway, I have become even more confident that Boris’s cabinet will soon be shown to be as denuded of power as their leader. But it isn’t just the Tories that are in a mess. Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit position is as untenable and, if anything, even more bizarre than Boris’s.
Has there ever been a major party leader entering conference season and an election campaign, in short succession, while explicitly refusing to take a position on the most important issue of our times? Party leaders, good, bad or indifferent, have at least been willing to share – with party and public – the policy conclusions, reached during their long journeys to the top, when asking for people’s votes. But not Corbyn.
As I understand Labour policy, it is to first force the prime minster to seek an extension to Brexit, thus making his very raison d’etre in office – “Do or Die!” – a stick with which to beat him, as soon as the election campaign gets underway. Labour would then fight that election on a manifesto, which would give voters no clue as to whether the party thinks that Brexit should happen at all.
Labour will commit itself to negotiate a different and “better” deal, including membership of the Customs Union, followed by a referendum offering only that arrangement or Remain. But hold on: we already know that the EU would offer us the Customs Union – it is superior for them than the deal they agreed with Theresa May. In the Customs Union, the UK would be locked into a whole range of EU rules, regulations and tariffs, from which the May Deal, love it or hate it, would have pulled us out.
So what Labour, with a straight face, is promising to “negotiate” is something they already have in the bag – a “known known”, as Donald Rumsfeld would have called it.
The truth is that Labour knows full well that the EU would allow the UK to stay in the Customs Union – just ask! – so there is no need to wait until after an election to decide whether to support it or not. Jeremy Corbyn must also have decided his own position on such a deal, which has been floating around as an option to resolve Brexit since this whole sorry mess began, in 2016.
So what is the Labour “wait and see” policy really all about, if not a genuine need to renegotiate with the EU after an election? Like so much of the history of the UK and Europe it is about the internal machinations of a party and the position of its leader. It has nothing to do with principle, the public interest or democracy. It is all about the staggering disconnect between Corbyn’s personal and ingrained distrust of the EU and the overwhelming support for Remain, within the party he leads.
The minute Corbyn comes out for Leave, or gives lukewarm and insincere backing for Remain, as he did in 2016, he will finally lose control of the Labour party, which will then haemorrhage votes to the Liberal Democrats, especially in London and other major cities. This Labour cannot afford if it is to have any chance of victory.
Corbyn has rightly concluded that his only possible path to Number 10 – improbable short-term “caretaker” scenario aside – would be to win a general election before declaring his position on Brexit. Such an election would be fought without Corbyn having the courage of his convictions, which would require him to speak up for Leave. He would need to keep quiet about one of the core beliefs, he has cherished, throughout his political life, that the EU is a “Capitalist Club” and enemy of the workers. Such a win, and certainly one including a working majority of Labour MPs, is an unlikely outcome anyway, but it is the only route there is for Corbyn, that might, just might, see him squeeze into power.
Labour is offering voters the political equivalent of one of those holidays, where you do not find out where you are going, or in which hotel you will be staying, until you step off the plane, blinking in the sunlight, after you land. Jeremy Corbyn is gambling everything on the hope that a majority of the British people will be prepared to walk into the polling booth and put a cross against “Labour – Destination Unknown”.
I predict that he will find out in the end that, while most of us might like the idea of a magical mystery tour, we really don’t book them very often.