The remain campaign’s political dilemma looks insoluble. Perhaps I am being overly pessimistic – gloom is my default state – but it is certainly formidable because it requires remainers to simultaneously support and oppose Jeremy Corbyn.
I can make the people who spell it out sound silly. I shouldn’t because some of the brightest and most committed men and women in the People’s Vote campaign are wrestling with the problem of how to break through in a first-past-the-post-system when a neo-Stalinist faction controls the opposition.
Here is their argument. A new Tory prime minister will be with us by July. I will assume the PM is a he and that he has conned Conservatives members, and perhaps himself, into believing that if he shouts a lot, the EU will abandon Ireland, and reopen the withdrawal agreement. It won’t or will make only cosmetic concessions. So what does he do?
He will want to call an election. Theresa May’s plan cannot get through the present Parliament. Indeed nothing can get through it. He may well decide that May’s is the hardest Brexit on offer, and put to the back of his mind the months he spent pretending she had betrayed the people’s will.
Perhaps, he muses, the old wine could be poured into new bottles and marketed as a fresh vintage, if he has a mandate of an election victory behind him. Equally, he could decide to go for a full Halloween crash out. I doubt he could do it by proroguing parliament and running down the clock. He would have no Commons backing, the markets would be going mad, and there would be protests on the streets. He would know that every job loss and business closure would be his fault, and suspect that as soon as the Commons reassembled it would treat him as the organiser of a coup d'état and throw him out. He would be the shortest-lived and most disastrous prime minister in British history.
He would need an electoral mandate.
Two factors appear to stop a Tory leader calling an election. First the centre-right vote is split three ways. Between the Tories, Farage’s Brexit Party, and the largely forgotten group of Conservative remainers who have given up on the party and now back the Liberal Democrats.
Second, Conservatives fear that a 2019 election will be a repeat of 2017. Remain supporters will hold their noses once again and, faced with a newly divided centre-right, Corbyn would become prime minister. As long as that threat holds, and an election is blocked off, the only way forward for a new prime minister is to call the referendum the People’s Vote campaign is arguing for. He may hate the idea. He may have won the Tory leadership by promising activists there would never be a people’s vote. He may suspect that, if remain wins, he will have to resign and once again the crown of the shortest-lived prime minister in British history will be his. But what choice will he have?
In these circumstances, argue People’s Vote strategists, centre-left unity is the priority. Conservatives must fear a Labour victory, Remainers must intensify the pressure on Corbyn to switch policy but stick with Labour as the only realistic alternative. If the pattern of the European elections is repeated, and voters split off and back the Greens, Lib Dems and Welsh nationalists, the next Tory PM can cut a deal with Farage and form a large enough bloc to come through the middle an d win.
It need not be that large a bloc – Labour won a healthy majority in 2005 with just 35 per cent of the vote. But it will do. If you want to understand the next election, picture two alcoholics fighting in a pub. The victor may be a debilitated wreck, but if he is less debilitated than his opponent is, he wins.
I guess this is why pressure was put on Femi Oluwole not to stand on a unity remain ticket for the Lib Dems, Greens and Change in the Peterborough by-election.
Before criticising the argument, I should say that it works fine in theory. Labour members, supporters and MPs have been the backbone of the opposition to Brexit. Why not believe that, with one tweak to its Brexit policy, Labour’s 2017 coalition will reassemble itself.
I’m a journalist not a soothsayer, and don’t know what will happen under the pressure of a general election campaign. But here are reasons for thinking we’re not in 2017 anymore.
The tactic of sticking by Labour while forcing it to change is too clever by half. Remainers are meant to put pressure on the Labour leadership by voting for Remain parties and then about turn and back Labour in a general election. They may do, but as everyone says, once trust is lost it is hard to rebuild it, especially when the centre-left has seen through Corbyn.
In 2017, Labour fooled voters into thinking it was on their side on Brexit. That mendacious PR man’s euphemism for lying “constructive ambiguity” doesn’t wash now. In a national crisis, millions of remain voters want leadership. Labour isn’t offering it, and they are withdrawing their support. (I should add, that despite media caricatures, the remain threat to Labour is as strong in the north as the south. As Rob Ford of Manchester University has exhausted himself by repeating, Labour remainers ‘are the larger group even in "Leave" voting Labour seats, so the focus on Leave voters is illogical’.)
Hurrying on, you should notice that, if you were picking a Labour leader to convince the country to change course, Corbyn would be your last choice. I always listen to Lisa Nandy, Caroline Flint and the other northern Labour MPs who warn of the danger of alienating Labour leave voters.
They are right to say that refusing to back Brexit would lose Labour a part of its support. But they are never wholly honest. If they were, they would say plainly that the support has already gone because many former Labour voters are repelled by Corbyn’s endorsement of every enemy this country has had in the past 40 years.
The repulsion is cross-class. Regardless of background, the ugliness and racism the far-left has brought to Labour politics has pushed away a substantial section of the electorate. In short if you were looking for a leader, you wouldn’t pick a man whose ‘who would make the best prime minister’ approval ratings have always lagged behind Theresa May’s – and continue to lag behind even after she has announced her resignation.
Left-wing loyalists try to duck the issue by offering the infantilising argument that Corbyn would embrace remain if only he were freed from the clutches of his wicked advisers. Or as Paul Mason put it recently, ‘I will enthusiastically circle the wagons around Corbyn…But the officials who designed this fiasco, and ignored all evidence that it would lead to disaster, must be removed from positions of influence.’
Come now. Do they think Corbyn is a feeble-minded child who follows every order Seumas Milne gives him? Do they not know of his lifetime of opposition to the EU?
More to the point, as I wrote in the Observer, no one would believe Corbyn if he came out for remain. For better or worse, the 21st century prizes authenticity – and Corbyn isn’t an authentic opponent of Farage and Johnson.
The way forward is to push ahead with converting public opinion. When – and if – opposition to Brexit hits 60 per cent, politicians from all parties will start to panic.
In the interim the heartening cooperation the Lib Dems, Greens and Change proposed in Peterborough must be built on and extended to cover as much of the Labour party as possible.
I accept that such ideas are easy to say and hard to implement, but that is where we are. It is Britain’s ill luck to be cursed with a hopeless leader of the opposition at a time when opposition is more needed than ever. If Labour won't get rid of him, we will have to find a way round him.