Jeremy Corbyn's interview with Andrew Neil was one of the most uncomfortable half hours of the Labour leader's tenure. In contrast to the ITV debate, where he appeared confident and quick-witted, Corbyn struggled to answer questions on a number of different issues, complaining all the while that Neil wouldn't let him finish. By the end, he might have wished that he'd had more interruptions as this was a very poor interview.
His refusal to apologise for the Labour party's handling of anti-Semitism has naturally attracted the most attention. He point blank disagreed with the Chief Rabbi, saying he was 'not right' to say it was 'mendacious fiction' that Labour had investigated every single case of anti-Semitism, and once again saying he was 'looking forward to having a discussion with him because I want to hear why he would say such a thing'. He expressed clear irritation at having his anti-racist credentials questioned, insisting that opposing racism is 'what my life is about' and that he felt 'very passionately' about this, as though making the sort of statements you'd see in a university application immediately inoculates you against ever being wrong. Taken together, these two responses to Neil's questions suggest that Corbyn still blames those who accuse him, rather than wondering whether there might be a different way of approaching the racism in his own party. He could quite easily have said that he too was appalled that his party had given Jews the impression they wouldn't feel safe if he were in government, and that he would do everything in his power to change things in Labour to win back trust. Instead, he wants to do everything in his power to persuade those Jews that they are wrong.
But there were other areas where he seriously floundered too - and on these he lacked the strange confidence that he exudes when asserting his lifelong anti-racist credentials. His case that he can bring the country back together by remaining neutral in a referendum on a Brexit deal that he'd just negotiated would be much stronger were Corbyn able to give at least an inkling that he'd thought through how this might work. Take this exchange:
Neil: So even if you got everything that you wanted in this deal you still wouldn’t ask people to vote for it?
Corbyn: Well, what I’m saying is that I think it’s the role – it would be the role of the government to say this is the choice before you, the people of this country and we’d also make sure that there are spending rules and so on in that referendum.
Neil: But the government won’t remain neutral. You’re the one to remain neutral.
Corbyn: I’d be the Prime Minister –
Neil: Most of your Shadow Cabinet is going to campaign to remain.
Corbyn: I would be the Prime Minister that would make sure that there was a fair debate and fair discussion, we’d come to conclusion at the end of it and I would carry out the result of that referendum –
Neil: I understand that.
Corbyn: - in whatever way it went.
Neil: What would you do during the referendum campaign? Would you go on holiday?
Corbyn: No, I’d be running the government. There are many other – there are many other –
Neil: You wouldn’t take part in the referendum campaign?
Corbyn: - there are many other things to run as well as that.
He was then asked who might run the Leave campaign while he got on with running the government, and replied: 'Those that support it would be active in it.'
On taxation and spending, Corbyn was able to argue reasonably well that he didn't think there would be a reason for anyone to leave the country as a result of his higher taxes for the rich, and that there was a compelling reason for those higher rates: 'I think they would also recognise that tax rates in general have gone down. That the levels of inequality have gone up. The levels of personal wealth for them have gone up enormously over the past 10 years, and they can see all around them the crumbling of public services and the terrible levels of child poverty that exist across Britain.' But this was undermined by his eventual, reluctant admission that low earners would also be hit by Labour's plans, given it wants to abolish the marriage allowance.
But nothing on spending came quite as close as Corbyn's inability to say how his party would fund its surprise £58 billion pledge to compensate the women hit by changes to the state pension age. He tried to dodge this question by saying that it was a 'moral debt that's owed to those women', before eventually saying: 'We will do it by paying for it from government reserves and if necessary, because it's not all going to be paid in one year, we will have to borrow in the long term.' He was then forced to admit that the government didn't have this money in reserves, saying 'it's nowhere near that figure of course'.
Voters may already have made up their minds on Labour and anti-Semitism, rightly or wrongly. The interview may not change much on that front. But what it will add to is the doubt that Labour has any idea how to fund - and therefore realise - its many expensive pledges in its manifesto. For voters interested in Brexit, Corbyn's nonsensical pledge to negotiate a deal then refuse to have anything to do with whether the British people ratify that looks even less explicable after this evening. This was not an inspired performance by the Labour leader at the end of a very dark day for his party.