Our editor-at-large writes the speech he fantasizes Jeremy Corbyn delivering to a rally of his faithful Momentum followers
Last week I wrote a speech for Theresa May, which concluded with an announcement that she had decided Brexit was impossible to deliver. Sadly, she didn’t listen, and so onwards she leads us towards the cliff-edge. This week, I am hoping for better luck with Jeremy Corbyn, fantasizing that he delivers this speech to a rally of his faithful Momentum followers…
‘Thank you for that wonderful reception. Thank you so much. Yes, yes, I know my name. ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’. Yes that’s me. Now please stop singing and sit down. Please. Please sit down. Thank you.
Well well well. Is it really just two years and a few months since a handful of you ganged up on me to stand for the leadership? Thanks for nothing, I said back then. Now I say thanks for everything. Thanks for daring to think that we could run and we could win. Run from the left and win from the left. Not once. But twice. Thank you.
And having done that in our party, I believe we can do it in our country. Because the rise in our politics is matched by the fall in faith in the system that has governed us for too long.
I will be honest with you. I didn’t want the job. I didn’t think I would get the job. I wasn’t sure I could do the job. But thanks to you I got it. Thanks to you I now have the confidence to do it. I approach the challenge of being Prime Minister not with fear or trepidation but with confidence that our time is coming. That it is our duty now to serve.
But as the prospect of power nears, so my perspective on power changes. All my life I have been a backbencher, happy to fight for the constituents I represent, happy to ensure that the voice of the left is heard amid those who have so long felt power can only be won from the centre.
I appreciate many of the good things Labour governments have done. I am proud to have supported a minimum wage, tax credits, devolution, Sure Start, gay rights. I am glad that the Northern Ireland peace process went in the right direction. In other areas though, not least the war in Iraq, I don’t resile from all my votes against a Labour government. On domestic and foreign policy, I stood by what I believed. Then as now. Now as always.
But as the possibility of power nears, I have perhaps become more aware of the difficult choices leaders have to make. Protest is one thing. Government is another. And we must now prepare, genuinely prepare, as a government-in-waiting. Because this government is spent. Of that I am sure. A Prime Minister incapable of leading. Her party incapable of being led. Their agenda at odds with the needs of the nation. Their values no longer in tune with the times.
Mrs May called her election convinced she could exploit my perceived ‘unelectability’ to win for herself a huge majority for Hard Brexit. If I looked shocked as the results came in it’s because I was. Not just the exit poll, which went against all our expectations. But also – how to explain winning in Canterbury? Winning in Kensington?
In our surprise maybe we overdid the celebration. We won in places we thought we would lose, we lost in places we ought to have won. We lost overall but behaved like we had won. To win now we must understand why we lost, and make the changes we need to make to persuade those who felt they could not support what we stood for and what we presented to them.
It has been a remarkable journey for me. I have never been what you would call fashionable. Nor have many of the causes I have supported. So to have you singing my name, to see my face on your T-shirts, to have people come to shake my hand rather than wring my neck, this is a novel experience for someone three years past pension age.
But new-found fandom and selfies do not win campaigns. Policies and hard work do. For every one person here who loves me there are plenty more outside who do not. We and I must be honest – that many who voted Labour did so to stop the Tories not because they wanted me in 10 Downing Street or John McDonnell in Number 11. I may be old but I am not daft. I know some of our candidates stood specifically on a platform – vote for me to be your MP, but don’t worry, Corbyn won’t be PM.
Well now I might be. To you that sounds exciting, exhilarating. But to others it is their worst nightmare. I have to show that the doubts people have – that I can’t be trusted on the economy, that we will become some kind of European Venezuela, or that I can’t be trusted on security and defence, that I will pull the UK out of NATO, get rid of our special forces, sign a pacifist pledge for all time, be friend not foe to the terrorist – are unjustified. In the coming weeks I will be addressing both of those issues.
However, one thing above all that dominates our politics today – Brexit. If I become Prime Minister it is Brexit that will define my leadership. As a result of what happened on June 23, 2016 I have no choice in the matter. The people’s choice dictates that it is so.
Just as the election came as a shock so did the referendum result. I thought Remain would win. Most of us did. I know some of you feel I didn’t campaign hard enough. I travelled the country. I campaigned for Remain. And I voted Remain. Honestly I did!
But I have never been starry-eyed about Europe. I did not like the Project Fear campaign. I did not want to share a platform with David Cameron and George Osborne because their version of Remain was very different to mine.
Also, I did not think the Scottish referendum benefited from the shared platforms of the main parties. I did not want to be used. I did not want Labour to be used. Perhaps if I had genuinely thought Leave would win I would have done more. I don’t know.
Then came the election. We took a risk. We avoided Brexit. The risk was that we got the worst of both worlds. Brexiteers thinking we were closet Remainers. Remainers thinking we were closet Brexiteers. Instead many Remainers rightly saw us as the best way to stop a mandate for Hard Brexit.
And many Brexiteers were relieved that we were not banging on about Brexit but the things they really care about. We got the focus onto our manifesto. Jobs and living standards. Health and education. Housing and poverty. We won the argument for a different approach not just to the election campaign but to the way we are governed. And many people, especially young people, warmed to those themes.
The risk paid off. We blunted her mandate. And we won the argument on so much of the domestic agenda. We are winning it still. Why else did they run away from the vote on universal credit? Why else are they now scrabbling around for a new approach on tuition fees? Why else are they legislating to bring in the once Marxist – their word – idea of energy price caps?
But it is clear to me the constructive ambiguity of our position on Brexit is no longer tenable. It is fine for a party of protest. It is not good enough for a party one step away from government.
When the country votes in a referendum, we must respect that. It would have been tempting to say ‘well it was only advisory’. Tempting too to say that David Cameron should have insisted on a two-thirds majority or a majority of the population. But I understand why Mrs May felt a duty to deliver for the simple majority who voted Leave.
She is right on this too – Soft Brexit or Hard Brexit is a false choice. There is Brexit or no Brexit. That is something else a different perspective on power has taught me, as I have studied the detail, talked with EU leaders in government, met the officials doing the negotiations. We are in, or we are out, and if we are out, we need to be fully aware of the consequences.
A ‘Jobs First Brexit’. That has been our line. It got us through the campaign. But it won’t get us through five years in government. It won’t get us beyond the first five days.
We have won the argument for a transition period. For staying, for a while, as post-Brexit Britain takes shape, in the single market and the customs union. They said there would be no need. Just like they said it would be easy to make a trade deal with the EU and with the rest of the world. Not exactly going according to plan, is it?
But let’s imagine this entirely credible scenario. As the current chaos inside the government continues, as the economic costs of Brexit grow, Mrs May falls. The Tories try to foist another Prime Minister on us, chosen by their ageing membership. But we and the public won’t wear it. We force an election. We win an election. I am Prime Minister. Now the hard part begins.
What does a Jobs First Brexit mean then, in power? What does it mean when it is I and Keir Starmer, not Mrs May and David Davis, sitting down to negotiate with Chancellor Merkel, President Macron, Monsieur Barnier? They may appreciate a softer tone, they may welcome the demise of Boris Johnson, and a commitment to transition. But what happens after the transition? What then? Is there a danger that we are just kicking the can down the road? That the cliff-edge still comes, only a bit later?
What is a Jobs First Brexit if our leaving the single market hurts growth, as every analysis in the world says it will? What is a Jobs First Brexit dependent on trade if trade slows and even grinds to a halt with the absence of a proper customs infrastructure at our ports, the absence of good trade deals not just with the EU but with the 66 countries with whom we have deals as part of the EU? What is a Jobs First Brexit if firms decide that if the UK leaves the EU they leave the UK and take their jobs and take their tax with them?
And how can we fund all the things in our manifesto that we need and want to fund in the future if our economy tanks?
These are our questions now. They don’t go away with transition. That just gives us a bit more time.
At the party conference, I said that our continued membership of the EU would prevent us from implementing many of the plans in our manifesto. I am grateful to the New European, which sought legal advice in Brussels and established this was not the case. So the question becomes, not ‘what do we lose by staying in?’, but ‘what do we lose by coming out?’ I am not young. If there is an election next year I will be 74 come the one after that. But I have children. It is their future and the future of their children that interests me more than my own.
Freedom of movement. Stop people coming here. But are we not also stopping our young people from going there? And in leaving the single market we are losing the biggest market in the world. The remaining 27 have 26 other countries to go to to fill the gap left by our departure. Where do we go? The Brextremists say we can grow our own food. What happens if I want to eat a bent banana, Boris?
Do you know why I was always a bit of a Eurosceptic? Not just the influence of Tony Benn. I saw the European Union, and the Commission, as something of a bankers’ and businessmen’s club, and that was underlined by the focus on the word market in ‘single market’.
But as the reality of losing something comes nearer I have realised there is so much more to the EU than the single market. It is a single home of values that have helped us in so many ways other than economic – in our rights, in environmental protection, in cultural and educational exchanges, in so much more. Those values are today more important than ever, with a right-wing nationalist in the White House, who can be trusted on very little, and certainly not on keeping his word to Theresa May to give us the right sort of trade deal for the future. What part of ‘America First’ doesn’t she understand?
As the Brexit chaos has unfolded something else has become clearer to me. That Brexit is a project not of the people, by the people, for the people, but of the nationalist right, by the nationalist right, for the nationalist right, their agenda and their rhetoric pumped and promoted by hard right media oligarchs who hate Europe because most of Europe has rejected their kind of media, and stands up to them more than we do.
The dominance of the hard right agenda is clear in their pressing Mrs May to walk away from the negotiations, crash out of the EU, into the WTO. They say it will bring certainty for business. Indeed it will. Certain lower growth. Certain higher prices. Certain higher inflation. Certain higher unemployment. Certain cuts in the public services for which we need extra not less funding. But a huge opportunity to turn Britain into the hard right, isolationist, offshore tax-haven some of them have long wanted us to be.
I am of the internationalist left. We exist to fight the nationalist right, not dance to its tune. We believe in solidarity, not driving people apart. We believe in support for the many, not the prosperity of the few. It is the nationalist right that is leading the Brexit Mrs May is pursuing, whatever the cost. It is their only route to the vision of the world that drives them. And, today I want to tell you – I have concluded that rejecting this vision of Brexit is the only route to the vision of the world that drives us. In this debate, they are the reactionaries, we and the Europeans the progressives.
We are all against austerity. But I am now clear that we cannot be anti-austerity and pro-Brexit. It is impossible, a contradiction. The Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph, the Express, they like to present ME as a threat to our economy.
Let me tell you – Brexit will make anything John McDonnell plans look like a piece of cake that you can have and you can eat, and still have a bit left over for later. If we allow this Brexit to happen, and one day in the future we do get back in power, the hard truth is our manifesto plans will not be worth the paper they are written on. Brexit won’t end austerity. It can’t. Its architects won’t let it. Because they want austerity for the many, prosperity for the few.
Whenever the nationalist right have put their vision to the electorate it has been rejected. Why else does Nigel Farage have so many lost elections on his CV? Why did Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague all come and go and prove Enoch Powell right that all politics ends in failure? Why did Theresa May lose the majority David Cameron won for them? But Brexit has given them the chance to impose their vision of the world by the back door. Win a referendum promising all manner of things, like more money for the NHS, the promise evaporating before the votes were even counted. Then pursue their ideological agenda by doing something very different to what was promised. Brexit is their Trojan Horse.
Take back control, they said. But what kind of control? Their control. Their right to dump decades of law with their Great Repeal Bill, a shameful power grab – so much for this being about parliamentary sovereignty – and bring about their vision of a low tax, low regulation economy, public services there for profit not public, employment and environmental rights shredded, one of the great powers of the world reduced to a gigantic Cayman Islands.
That is their dream. That is the destination to which they are now riding the Trojan horse. And many of those who voted for Brexit, in the poorest areas, the places we represent, the people we fight for, they will be the hardest hit. As the reality of power nears, I must tell you, candidly, I can no longer go along with it. Not now. Not in two years. Not ever.
It is hard to feel sorry for Mrs May, given the things her government has done to people and communities. But I do. She is a prisoner of the hard right. She is trapped by their mantra about the will of the people, when in truth it is the will of a tiny minority of right-wing MPs, media and hedge fund oligarchs which is being served. That has become clearer as they have exhorted Mrs May to pursue the no deal option that during the referendum they said we would never even have to contemplate.
No deal, I must warn you, would be a catastrophe. So if Mrs May is still Prime Minister, and presents the no deal option to Parliament, be in no doubt – we will vote against it. We will press for a deal with keeps us in the single market and the customs union, to protect trade and avoid chaos. But today I want to go further. The referendum was close. It was not, contrary to the claims of the Brextremists ‘clear’, let alone ‘overwhelming’. And I know from my own conversations travelling the country that as the reality of Brexit looms, and as we learn so much more than we knew when Cameron’s Project Fear and Johnson’s Project Lies were playing out their Tory leadership psychodrama, that doubts are growing. Many have not changed their minds at all. But some have. Many more have become less certain than they were. Millions are deeply concerned about what is happening to our country. I believe people have a right to change their minds as this all unfolds. And politicians have a duty to reflect that, and to give proper vent to the debate it represents.
Democracy is a process, not a moment in time. Leave won, and with it a mandate for exit. Mrs May then sought a mandate for a Hard Brexit, and failed to win it. If the government falls, and we win a general election, then we can put a different vision of Brexit to the country, and we will. If we can bring about a fresh election, this is the Brexit policy you will be voting for.
We will take over the negotiations from Mrs May and her hapless, hopeless team. We will review what progress has been made and assess whether Brexit can be delivered on the timescale set out under the Article 50 process she triggered.
If we conclude, as on any current assessment seems likely, that Brexit cannot be delivered without real damage to our economy, that a Jobs First Brexit is impossible, that it will mean lower growth, higher prices, higher unemployment, more austerity, cuts to public services, customs chaos, the return of a hard border in Ireland and the potential undoing of the Good Friday Agreement, the loss of security co-operation with our partners, then I will revoke Article 50. I am clear that a referendum decision can only be overturned by another one, and so we will legislate for a new referendum, and the choice we will put before the British people is between staying in, or leaving on the terms then on offer.
If, as I believe they will, the British people opt to reverse their decision of last June, that will put us in a strong position then to succeed where David Cameron failed, and win the argument for a reformed EU that works for all.
Changing your mind is not easy. It is not something I am associated with. But on this, I have changed my mind as the prospect of sitting there in Number 10 having to make the big decisions comes closer. And one of the things that has made me do so has been the sight and sound of those who are shouting loudest for this Hard Brexit to happen. Mrs May because she is a prisoner. Redwood. Farage. Lawson. Carswell. Duncan Smith. Howard. Dacre and his minions. Desmond and his minions. Murdoch. The Barclays. Brexit of the hard right, by the hard right, for the hard right. These are not our people, and this is not our project.
This time, I will fight, as I did in the leadership elections and the general election, like my life depends on it. I promise.
One final announcement. Before we legislate for a future referendum should it be needed, we will legislate to lower the voting age to 16. Because no country ever built success by governing against the interests of the young. This is their future that is at stake, and they must be properly involved in shaping it.
Comrades, this has been a lot to take in. But I believe it is the right course for our Party, for our movement, and most important of all, for the country.
Now let’s get out there and fight. Fight to bring this government down, fight to get a majority Labour government which will deliver a real vision of the internationalist left, and defeat the nationalist right who are steering our country to the rocks. For the many not the few. The future not the past. Leadership not drift.
This is our country too. This is our time. Let’s bring the Trojan horse to its knees, take back control of our destiny, and build a country future generations will be proud to call home. Thank you.