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Alastair Campbell: McDonnell must move Corbyn on Brexit

Alastair Campbell and John McDonnell clashed over Brexit on Peston on Sunday. Picture: ITV - Credit: Archant

The New Euopean’s Editor-at-Large, ALASTAIR CAMPBELL, challenges John McDonnell to move Corbyn on Brexit.

On leaving the ITV studios on Sunday, I sensed that Robert Peston’s production team wished he had let my exchange with John McDonnell go on a little longer. So did I.

The Daily Express, never averse to hyperbole, called it a ‘huge spat’. It was anything but, because there was so much left unsaid. All we really had time for was for me to point out that so far as EU leaders were concerned there was next to no difference between government and Labour given both are saying Brexit will happen come what may, and for McDonnell to counter that I was being divisive and indulging in ‘macho, threatening politics’.

It is hard for a lifelong Labour team player – from Foot to Miliband – to take too seriously accusations of divisiveness from someone rivalled only by Jeremy Corbyn in terms of votes against their own government.

Nor can I take too much to heart the macho charge from a leadership team somewhat lacking in senior women, and which has recently helped force out one of the country’s best council leaders, Claire Kober in Haringey, not least via macho, threatening politics. As for his call for ‘rational moderate debate,’ (his passive aggressive way of suggesting I am irrational and immoderate) he should try telling that to those members who have given up on party meetings because of Momentum’s Militant Tendency tactics of endless procedural point-scoring and nit picking mixed with loud personal abuse. McDonnell has developed a nice bedside manner for TV, but his style of politics is much closer to the immoderates than mine.

As he left the studio he looked at me and shook his head sadly as if to say ‘why can’t you just get behind what we are trying to do on Brexit?’ Had we had the time I would have explained.

Peston, keen as the Sunday shows always are to extract a story for the news bulletins, seemed to think McDonnell was shifting a few more small steps on the road towards a policy that might live with something resembling the customs union. Maybe. But that does not negate my point that the government and Labour are heading ultimately in the same direction – leaving the EU whatever the cost and the chaos and without knowing the final destination. That is certainly the impression EU leaders and officials I speak to say they are getting.

McDonnell, asked about a ‘second’ referendum (which would actually be a fresh referendum on a new question about the deal) said that he would rather have the issue settled in an election because the country would then be able also to debate other issues Labour prefer talking about – health, housing, police numbers, failing public services.

But the point I would have made had the discussion gone on longer is that for an election to settle the Brexit issue, there has to be a fundamental, definable difference between the two main parties. As things stand, there isn’t, other than the assertion that Labour would do a better job of negotiation and kick the can a little further down the road.

Chief among other questions I would love to have raised, had Peston given us the time, is why Jeremy Corbyn is so reluctant to challenge Theresa May on Brexit at Prime Minister’s Questions? Falling police numbers are important. But to have ministers tearing each other apart, failing to agree a strategy almost 20 months after the referendum, the Japanese warning of lost investments, government impact assessments indicating a double-digit slump in growth in some of the poorest parts of the country, and not to raise a single question on the issue, is mind-boggling. It is like a football team winning a penalty but insisting they take a corner instead, and then knocking the ball around by the corner flag.

I would also liked to have probed why and how this shambles of a government, led by surely the most incompetent Prime Minister in living memory, continue to be more or less neck-and-neck in the polls. My own view, Brexit-biased I admit, is that Labour’s lack of leadership and fight on the biggest issue facing the country is what is preventing many from seeing them as an alternative government, or Corbyn as a PM-in-waiting.

I would then like to have asked McDonnell whether, assuming Labour come to power in 2022, the government having run its full term, he accepts that the downgraded growth forecasts will have a significant effect on their ability to deliver on the manifesto promises on which they hope to win?

There are some pretty big pretences at the heart of Labour strategy. They are pretending there is a massive difference between their approach to Brexit and that of the government. They are pretending all the free this and the free that can easily be funded by a bit of tax on business and the rich. They are pretending, if I can borrow a phrase from Parliament’s Charlatan in Chief, Boris Johnson, that they can have their cake and eat it.

I would also like to have asked how the claim that ‘listening to members’ is at the heart of their politics squares with the fact that an overwhelming proportion of Labour members not only want a referendum on the deal, but also the possibility of not leaving the EU on the ballot paper?

There is pretence too in McDonnell’s claim that the reason he opposes a new referendum is that it would fuel further division in the country and open the door to right-wing xenophobia. Is the real reason not that the political faction of which Corbyn and McDonnell have been a part all of their lives is more than happy for us to leave a European Union they have always seen as something of a rich man’s globalising club. It would be far more honest to say so.

Even if Corbyn wants to move to a less evidently Eurosceptic public posture, the three Ms with most influence over him – McDonnell, Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray (the last two Ms recent converts to Labour from private school Communism, so no lectures from them thank you very much) – won’t let him. It has come to something that it is the fourth Big M, Big Len McLuskey, who is trying to persuade them that this hard right, hard Brexit now being driven by the government is going to do massive damage to the workers for whose interests Corbyn and the other Ms claim to be in politics.

Labour are not in power. But because of the Parliamentary arithmetic, they do have power. They could use that power to shift the debate on Brexit. They have chosen not to. They say that this is because public opinion has not shifted. But why should it when both main parties and most of the media say there is no point thinking Brexit is anything but a done deal? Public opinion is not like the weather, which we are powerless to change. We can do an awful lot – and few more than the opposition to a government as useless as this one – to shift public opinion. They choose not to do so because they don’t want it to change.

That is the other thing I would like to have discussed. What do the young people who have been inspired by Corbyn to join Labour want him to do on Brexit? And might there come a point where the scales fall from their eyes to the extent that they see little difference in the Corbyn-McDonnell stance on Brexit and that of the Farages and Rees-Moggs?

I know why the Farages and Rees-Moggs, the Murdochs and the Dacres, want a hard Brexit. Because they are very right wing and they want a low tax, low regulation, public service shredding, finger-licking chlorinated chicken State. In doing so little to oppose them, Labour are facilitating that vision. Cameron the father of Brexit; May the mother; Corbyn the midwife.

That is why I can’t get behind Labour’s approach. But I would love to sit down with McDonnell and have a rational moderate debate about it. New European. GQ. Podcast. Radio or telly. Public meeting. Whatever. I just think there is a genuine debate here that has to be had, and the mainstream media, in the main, is not having it.

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