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Jeremy Corbyn’s victory puts the EU referendum on a knife edge

Political futures hang on the question – not least that of Boris Johnson

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

No one watching Jeremy Corbyn walk around the Palace of Westminster would imagine that he had just won the Labour leadership by a landslide. He seems to spend his time practising the blank stare he gives to television cameras, his eyes fixed firmly on the middle distance. He doesn’t seem too keen on his colleagues either. There is none of the back-slapping bonhomie that normally surrounds a new leader. When he first addressed Labour MPs, there was no cheer when he entered the room which is, for a new leader, unprecedented.

Corbyn is the accidental leader. He didn’t enter this race expecting to win. At the meeting at which he decided to stand, there was no talk about the effect that the job would have on his family life. When you’re a 200/1 outsider, such discussions seem pointless. So Corbyn has been hijacked by his victory and now, to his visible discomfort, finds himself the subject of intense media scrutiny. Unwanted publicity led Chuka Umunna to pull out of the contest in May, saying he wasn’t prepared for the attention. Corbyn looks like he is realising all too late that nor is he.

Yet for all the missteps of his first few days in the job, Corbyn is in a strong position. The sheer margin of his victory — he took 60 per cent of the vote — all but rules out any move against him in the near future. As one of those who has declined to serve under him points out, Labour moderates need to find a champion, then recruit supporters, before they even think about forcing a leadership contest. Both of these will take time.

For their part, the Conservatives are operating on the assumption that, as one of Cameron’s confidants puts it, ‘life cannot be this kind for us for that long’ and that Corbyn will be gone soon. So how to respond: by attacking Labour or wooing Labour voters? Inside Downing Street, George Osborne has been arguing that the Tories have to use Corbyn’s leadership to trash the Labour brand. The message being spread by of one of Osborne’s closest allies is that the next three months are ‘an opportunity to not just define Jeremy Corbyn, but the Labour party too’.

Corbyn is likely to survive until the EU referendum. It had, until recently, been taken for granted that Labour would campaign for Britain to stay in the EU. This is no longer a given. Corbyn himself is ‘90 per cent an Outer’, according to one of those familiar with his position, regarding Brussels as part of an axis of global capitalism. He has told other Eurosceptic Labour MPs that he won’t impose his view on the party and will instead convene a special conference to decide Labour’s position on the issue once the terms of Cameron’s renegotiation are clear.


Such a conference would probably result in Labour backing remaining in the EU. But it is hard to see the trade unions then providing much support for the pro-EU campaign. Several are already warning that they will campaign to leave if Cameron’s renegotiation affects social and employment rights. Add to this the fact that the Out campaign is confident of gaining the support of three quarters of Tory activists, and it is hard to see who will knock on doors to sell the merits of staying in.

Many of those plotting Britain’s exit from the EU don’t actually want Corbyn’s endorsement, fearing that he’d alienate voters. Indeed with Corbyn and Nigel Farage, the two bookends of contemporary politics, both campaigning for Britain to leave, it would be all too reminiscent of 1975, when Tony Benn and Enoch Powell campaigned against British membership. It would make the cause look extreme to middle-ground voters.

But if the Out campaign are wary of Corbyn’s support, they are optimistic about gaining Boris Johnson’s. The Mayor of London has made clear in private meetings over the summer that while he remains undecided, he is confident that the City of London would be fine outside the EU. Tory Eurosceptics have also been cheered by his private support for those who rebelled to defeat the government’s attempt to change the rules on ‘purdah’ for the EU referendum. They have taken this as a sign that he is moving their way.

Another thing that will push Boris towards campaigning for Britain to leave is that it increasingly looks like his last best chance of winning the Tory leadership. Cameron’s surprise election victory and Corbyn becoming Labour leader have sunk the idea that only Boris’s unique appeal can deliver a majority for the Tories. Meanwhile, Osborne’s position is increasingly strong. ‘I would put a large amount of money on George being the next leader,’ one of Cameron’s closest supporters told me recently.

But being the frontrunner poses problems for Osborne. Tory leadership races are rarely won from the front. Second, the further ahead the Chancellor pulls, the more likely Boris is to back leaving the EU, seeing the referendum as the event most likely to derail the Osborne juggernaut. Even one influential Downing Street figure concedes that backing Out is ‘the obvious alternative for Boris’.

An influential figure in the Osborne camp counsels that the best way to keep Boris in line is to persuade him that In will win. But this argument is increasingly hard to make as the polls have tightened: most of those who voted Tory at the election now wish to leave the EU. This, of course, raises the prospect of a Tory split after the referendum.

But with Corbyn in charge, Cameron won’t face a united Labour party. It is hard to see how Labour could attack him for keeping the Tory party neutral in the referendum campaign when it is split on the issue too. Many Tory whips and Cabinet members think that Cameron will, in the end, have to allow ministers and MPs to campaign for ‘Out’ — if so, the Prime Minister would be wise to make this concession at a time of his own choosing. Doing it in the next few months would also make the Tory debate on the issue far more civil, making a post-referendum reconciliation between the two sides far easier.

Those close to Cameron stress that they are ‘nowhere near’ taking such difficult decisions. But as the Corbyn chaos unfolds, the Prime Minister should take this opportunity to limit the damage that the EU referendum could inflict on his party.

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The Spectator is hosting an evening discussion ‘Is the EU bad for business?’ at 7pm on Tuesday 20 October at The Royal College of Surgeons, WC2. Speakers include: Dominic Cummings, director of the ‘No’ campaign and Will Straw, executive director of the ‘Yes to Europe’ campaign and is chaired by Andrew Neil. For tickets and further information, click here.


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