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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: How Labour saw Brexit as an inconvenience

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn after casting his vote in the 2019 General Election. Picture: Joe Giddens/ PA Wire - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL argues Labour viewed Brexit as a tactical inconvenience – and because it could not adequately address the topic it meant their other messages were ignored.

What feels like years ago, just before Theresa May threw in the towel, I was with George Osborne, to interview him for GQ. Once the interview was done he took me on a tour of the Evening Standard, where he had improbably been installed as editor. In our filmed, on-the-record chat he was somewhat coy about his views of Boris Johnson, but you didn’t have to read too hard between the lines to sense he had doubts about the man’s character, capacity, reliability.

So I asked him afterwards for a simple promise – that his party would not choose Johnson to replace May, and thus install as prime minister someone so clearly ill-suited for the task.

“I can’t do that,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Because look at his life. Every step he has taken, he has pretty much achieved what he set out to achieve.”

He ran through that life: Got to the school and college he wanted to, and got out of it – educationally, socially, politically – what he wanted. Became a journalist and got the jobs he wanted, on the papers he wanted, with the profile he wanted; survived sackings and scandals, indeed turned them to his advantage, turned himself into a ‘personality’. Became an MP when he wanted to, stopped when he wanted to, became mayor of London when he wanted to, with the 2012 Olympics falling into his lap, perfect for the Johnson brand – let others do the work, take the credit, make it all about having fun, making people laugh, being ‘Boris’. Became an MP again, a key player in the Cameron Tory party, then alighted upon his pal Dave’s historic error – a binary choice referendum on Europe at the wrong time for the wrong reasons – as a historic opportunity for him. Led the Leave campaign. Won. Lied. Got away with it. Was rewarded with promotion to foreign secretary as Theresa May made her own error about Johnson, assuming he was better inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in. Johnson embraced the urinary equivalent of having his cake and eating it – pissed inside the tent while in it and pissed inside even harder when he chose to go back outside. Always on his terms, his timeframe, his ambition to the fore.

“So no,” said Osborne. “I can’t promise at all. I think he will win. All his life he has got what he wanted.” For the record, the urinary analogy is mine, not his, but he made much the same point. Johnson plays his own game, by his own rules, in pursuit of his own interests. Always.

It is, I suppose, a version of Napoleon’s lucky general theory. Hard to argue, given what has just happened. But perhaps his greatest stoke of luck came in his opponents. And none more so than Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour lost this election every bit as much as the Tories won it. I know we are not in normal times, but on every ‘normal’ assessment of campaigns, it was there for the taking: An economy flatlining; schools and hospitals struggling in the face of under investment; local government often unable to deliver even the most basic of services after a decade of shredding by austerity; the equivalent of a medium-sized town sleeping on the freezing streets; now more foodbanks in the UK than McDonald’s branches, a veritable explosion from the one that existed in the year Labour lost power. Every single one of those issues should have played to Labour’s historic strengths, and Corbyn’s central arguments.

I detected very little enthusiasm or respect for Johnson in my election travels. People knew they risked electing a liar.

I detected some warmth and pockets of massive enthusiasm for Corbyn – but in key battlegrounds these were dwarfed by the doubts of so many people that he had what it took to be prime minister.

These were not people likely to turn out at rallies and chant his name, or the name of any other politician. They were neither ideological right nor ideological left. Many of them, dare I say it given the Corbynistas helped turn the name of Labour’s most successful leader into a swear word, voted for New Labour and, even if they didn’t, saw Tony Blair as a strong leader and a capable prime minister in a way they struggled to see Corbyn.

That truth – which has been evident for some time and was merely briefly camouflaged by Labour’s better than expected result in 2017 – lay at the heart of Johnson’s determination to get his winter election the moment he took over from May. Why on earth the Liberal Democrats and the SNP chose to fall into his trap, thus ramping the pressure on Corbyn to do likewise, is beyond me. To do so as the support for a People’s Vote in the last parliament was growing not receding was equally baffling.

The commentators will now queue to say what a great campaigner Johnson is, how the simplicity of ‘Take Back Control’ was matched by the simplicity of ‘Get Brexit Done’, and the message delivered with such consistency that it won the day. But a message only connects if it is rooted in reality, and if your opponents let you get away with it. You need both of those things to win with it.

That it is not rooted in reality will become apparent quickly enough. With his majority, Johnson can get Brexit done to the extent that he can pass his withdrawal agreement. But then the really tricky stuff starts, as we seek to negotiate the detailed exit with the EU, and trade deals with others such as the US, at a time when our negotiation leverage on both fronts is weaker than ever. However, it was the letting him get away with it by his opponents that helped him deliver that message, ramped of course by the Brexit Lie Machine newspapers, a handicap to Corbyn that I do not minimise, not least for the influence they have in the framing of the campaign by the broadcasters. But precisely because Johnson wanted to talk about Brexit at every turn, Labour wanted to avoid the subject.

There were two parts to the Johnson message – get Brexit done and then focus on the things that really matter to people. Only by demolishing the first were Labour likely to get the hearing they needed on the second. Labour appeared to view Brexit as a tactical inconvenience, rather than the defining issue of our time. How else to explain the near- invisibility of Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry, shadow Brexit secretary and shadow foreign secretary respectively?

The answer, of course, may be that Labour knew that truth about Corbyn, and in some ways were less focused on doing what was needed to win the general election than on what would follow in the wake of defeat, so perhaps wanted to keep possible leadership rivals out of the picture, and instead promote true believers Rebecca Long-Bailey, Richard Burgon, Laura Pidcock, the chosen few. It did not help win over those who needed to be won.

There are many individual reasons why millions of individual people decided to vote this way or that. But if I boil down the resistance to Labour this time, it came in three parts: The nastiness of politics (anti-Semitism/cultism/past acquaintances); economics (free this and that, all paid for by modest tax rises on a few, and with fresh big sums promised even after the ‘costed’ manifesto was published); and the worldview (the negativity I found about Corbyn in the north was less about Brexit than about the sense he was not, politically and culturally, on their side).

In 2017, Labour got the benefit of the doubt from many, not least because despite May being such a bad campaigner, nobody thought Labour could win. Also, Corbyn was something of an unknown quantity for many. That was not the case this time.

He is not a bad campaigner. But the public were not buying his message. Not buying him, not buying his politics. The question now is not just whether Corbyn goes, but Corbynism too. If it doesn’t 
then I have a horrible feeling Johnson’s run of luck could continue, despite the damage his Brexit strategy is now set to inflict.

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