So there I was being non-partisan by praising the Labour party for its generally mature response to the coronavirus crisis when clearly I should have been putting this down to Jeremy Corbyn’s erratic level of engagement with major events rather than a deliberate strategy. Because it turns out that shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth’s wise mixture of qualified support for the Government underpinned by the asking of sensible, probing questions was not, after all, sanctioned by the Leader of the Opposition himself.
Instead, despite his impending exit stage left, Corbyn has found irresistible the temptation to try and weaponise one of the biggest governmental challenges of our lifetimes against the prime minister of the day. Yesterday he recorded for BBC News one of those utterly vacuous 'it’s a shambles' responses opposition leaders often decide is their best bet when they are unsure what they would be doing were they in the hot seat. Had it been about a bog standard issue like train delays, say, or maybe a shortage of school places in certain boroughs, that might have been understandable.
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) March 15, 2020
"The government seems complacent"Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn says he has written a letter to the prime minister asking why advice on coronavirus "is different to that given in almost every other European country"https://t.co/FzdphI1mdR pic.twitter.com/73NLoYmDKR
But at a time when the British establishment is battling to get us through such a grave threat to public health it is pretty unforgivable. Veering away from Ashworth’s measured tones, Corbyn came out with something that could have been scripted by media bombast-in-chief Piers Morgan.
'It’s very, very serious and the Government just seems to be complacent and behind the wheel (sic) on this and they are giving advice that’s different to that given in almost every other European country. This is something strange,' he declared.
He then said he was 'demanding to know what’s going to be in the emergency legislation next week', despite the Sun’s political editor Tom Newton Dunn confirming Ashworth had direct input into helping Matt Hancock draw up the emergency legislation.
There are plenty of positive points that non-partisan, responsible left-wingers could be making in relation to this huge public policy challenge. For a start, it underlines the essential role of a well-resourced and legitimate state in keeping people safe.
Unless you are one of the tiny number of people who owns their own very well-stocked desert island, there is no libertarian remedy to what we are facing. The challenge demands a social response, from directing extra financial help to low income households to ultimately compelling people to go into physical isolation for either their own benefit if they are in a vulnerable group or the benefit of their communities if they are infected.
And even those on the right are conceding that having a single, dominant, publicly-owned and run healthcare provider could prove to be a vital advantage to Britain in fighting this virus.
Once again we also see the big business begging bowl being retrieved from the cupboard where it has resided since the banking crisis, with Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic talking up the need for state bail-outs for airlines. A constructive social democrat would surely be arguing that if the state is to be expected to turn on a money tap during the bad times then multinational businesses should be paying rather more into the public kitty during the good times.
But while Ashworth continues to impress and clearly realises that there are times when naked opportunism is not an appropriate stance for an opposition politician, Corbyn has slid back into demonising the hated Tories as easily as if he were donning a favourite pair of old slippers.
The British public have too much common sense to fall for this. They have an intuitive understanding that we are facing a very serious crisis with incomplete information and so nobody can be certain what responses will work best. But they also see that our appointed expert advisers are impressive, calm and knowledgeable and that there is no better way forward than following their advice.
Indeed if Britain is to continue to be a governable society at all then uniting behind its legitimate authorities in times of crisis must be a pre-requisite. It may well be that in 18 months’ time, when doing a retrospective on the handling of this crisis, a review finds there are things that would, with the benefit of hindsight, have better been done differently.
But it cannot be the case that having some people stick with the plan and others charging around like headless chickens because Comrade Corbyn and Major Morgan have – out of varying motivations – deliberately sought to undermine public faith in the authorities is a good way forward.
In fact, by lurching into this approach, without any sign of having his own alternative coronavirus strategy that can be published and scrutinised by expert opinion, Corbyn could be said to have become the opponent of a cohesive, society-wide, state-led response. And that is a very strange position for anyone professing to be a socialist to find himself in.
We have another three weeks to put up with this man. I am afraid he is on course to depart the scene not with a bang, or even a whimper but just with an empty whine.