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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: Corbyn can’t – but we can

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Alastair Campbell on how the public can still stop Brexit – even if it is without the support of Jeremy Corbyn.

Talk about a rollercoaster. One minute you’re up, because Jo Johnson has resigned as a minister, torn apart Theresa May’s Brexit ‘plans’ and come out unequivocally for a People’s Vote. The next you’re down again because Jeremy Corbyn has opined that ‘we can’t stop Brexit’. Find your inner Obama, Jeremy – Yes, we can.

The question is do we want to? I do. Or, at least, I want to give the British people the chance to confirm or deny if this miserable Brexit negotiated by the prime minister is what they want. And can we please stop calling it ‘the deal’? It is not ‘the deal’ at all. It is the agreement of the terms on which we leave, so that the future deal might be done. See it as foreplay. But only one side gets to enjoy it. The other side – us – just gets screwed, but not in a nice way. A failure of statecraft indeed.

May’s character – stubborn, secretive, unimaginative, unempathetic – is perhaps not the best for negotiations as difficult as these. But Corbyn’s character has its problems too, and in particular two traits which point in different directions. He prides himself on never changing his mind. But he also prides himself on being more listener than leader, someone who values the views 
of others as being as important as 
his own.

However, when it comes to Brexit the ‘I’m never wrong’ Corbyn, who was never much of a fan of the EU, seems to hold sway over the party democrat Corbyn. Depending which poll you read, somewhere between 70 and 86% of Labour members support a People’s Vote, and around nine out of 10 would vote to stay in the EU if that option was on the ballot paper. We are not exactly talking ‘within the margin of error’ here.

I know polls can be wrong but they say the country as a whole also now supports a People’s Vote, supports Remain, and a majority of voters in every Labour seat does too. So when Corbyn says ‘we can’t stop Brexit’, we have to conclude that what he means is ‘I don’t want to’. In which case, another of the Corbyn traits he prides himself on – honesty – should come to the fore, and he should say so, clearly. Because then it means that whatever the costs or the chaos, so long as he is there Brexit has to happen; that May gets her deal through parliament and life goes on, miserably.

Or she doesn’t and – presumably this is what he is after – he gets the general election he’s been calling for, and goes into that election clear that if he wins, it is on the basis that he delivers Brexit, but a different one to the one she tried to deliver. It’s not the greatest choice to put before the voters, is it?

I was hoping Corbyn’s ‘we can’t stop Brexit’ might have been one of those lost in translation moments. Then at least there might be a ‘taken out of context’ excuse, or even ‘wilfully misinterpreted’. But no. Der Spiegel ran the whole thing online in English, emphasising both their international reach, and the Germans’ greater grasp of foreign languages than ours.

I did read the whole interview. The first thing to say is that they took a nice picture. Good lighting. He looked relaxed. Nice pose. Good use of hands. He looked smart. Dark suit and white shirt that were either new or recently pressed, shiny metal poppy in his lapel, the overall effect rather more statesmanlike than the look he created a few days later at the Cenotaph.

As someone who always felt Michael Foot was unfairly maligned over a donkey jacket that wasn’t, I resisted temptation to pile in to the Twitter storm that Corbyn’s hooded, shiny, anoraky coat provoked. But I will let you in on one of Angela Merkel’s little secrets, which one of Jeremy’s little helpers might care to pass on. The German chancellor has a stylist in her entourage – no laughing at the back there, because this is the point. Chancellor Merkel does not want media or public to focus on how she looks or what she wears. So the stylist’s job is to make sure she always looks the same. She once wore a rather risqué cleavage-exposing cocktail dress. The once was enough. Never again. Now it is same hair, same make-up. She has a very large wardrobe of samey-looking jacket and trouser combos. But, as we saw in her meeting with other world leaders in France, she can also do samey but extra smart for special occasions. The point for Corbyn is not that he should always wear the same clothes, let alone get a stylist, but that he should always try to avoid them becoming the focus of debate about him.

Back to his interview with Der Spiegel. (Actually the modern languages graduate in me is itching to say ‘his interview with Dem Spiegel,’ as prepositions can change the definite article in German, and if there is one English language paper where that point might be made surely it is this one. But that would just be a bit esoteric and show-offy so I won’t. Oh I just did.)

Here, verbatim, is the relevant section.

DER SPIEGEL: Not just Labour, but the whole country is extremely divided at the moment, not least because of Brexit. If you could stop Brexit, would you?

Corbyn: We can’t stop it. The referendum took place. Article 50 has been triggered. What we can do is recognise the reasons why people voted Leave.

If I was being really charitable I would wonder if what he meant was that ‘we alone can’t stop Brexit’. But when you read the whole interview, he is very much in Obama antithesis mode – no, we can’t.

So yes, it is deeply dispiriting that the Labour leader chose not to spell out his own party’s policy – vote down the deal unless it meets their six tests, call for a general election, if one is not forthcoming, campaign for a People’s Vote, including with the option to Remain. A bit wordy for Der Spiegel – OK, Dem Spiegel – but it is a serious magazine and they would have accommodated it.

This is what makes it so laughable that May keeps dismissing our campaign as ‘the Politicians’ Vote’. Yes, there were MPs of all the parties at the rally at Methodist Hall, in Westminster, on Tuesday, out loud and proud for the People’s Vote. But they are still very much the minority. And yes, thankfully, Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer went as close as he reasonably could to saying Corbyn was talking nonsense in confirming ‘we can stop Brexit’ in interviews on Monday, and Gordon Brown said much the same.

But the People’s Vote campaign has gone from nowhere to being the most popular current position, despite the current leaders of both the main parties saying we are effectively wasting our time: ‘There will be no second referendum,’ says May. ‘We can’t stop Brexit,’ says Corbyn. ‘Suck it up, we’re leaving,’ says most of the media.

The reason the public are not buying this is because, as Jo Johnson said, people are thinking about it more deeply as Brexit nears, and coming in increasing numbers to see that it if you are a Leaver, you are entitled to say ‘this is not really Brexit’. And if you are a Remainer you are entitled to ask ‘what is the point of this?’

Either way, despite rather than because of our leaders, support for a People’s Vote is growing, opposition to May’s ‘deal’ is growing, and if parliament rejects the so-called deal, and the public want to take a different route, we can stop Brexit. It would be easier if we had the leader of the opposition onside, but just because something is hard does not mean that it is impossible. Keep fighting.

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