The Labour leadership’s support alone will not guarantee a People’s Vote – but it is a crucial step towards one, argues ANDREW ADONIS.
So serpentine were Prince Talleyrand’s manoeuvres in transitioning at high level from the French Revolution to Napoleon and the restored French monarchy that when he finally died the Austrian chancellor Metternich asked: ‘What did he mean by that?’
Jeremy Corbyn isn’t yet in Talleyrand’s survival league. But he has done surprisingly well and pulled off some remarkable coups de théâtre in a leadership of the Labour Party which, at approaching three-and-half years, is already longer than Michael Foot’s and Gordon Brown’s.
The latest coup was this week’s conversion to a second referendum on Brexit.
There were many, including some of my nearest and dearest political friends, who thought this would never happen. I always thought it would, because Corbyn’s position on Europe is ambivalent not hostile, and because he had nowhere else to go unless he was prepared to see Labour split, particularly in the wake of last week’s launch of the Independent Group.
However, in classic Corbyn fashion, it was chaotic and contradictory. And we now have to make sense of what really happened and what it really means.
What happened was that Corbyn succumbed to irresistible pressure from Keir Starmer, in newfound alliance with John McDonnell and unspoken rapport with Chuka Umunna’s TIG, to announce that if Labour’s ‘better Brexit’ could not win through then he would support a referendum.
It is important to understand that Corbyn was also succumbing to part of himself – his better self, I like to think. While not remotely enthusiastic about the EU, because it isn’t a Latin American liberation movement, he has come to realise that it is better than the alternatives.
Hence his ‘70% in favour of the EU’ observation during the last referendum campaign.
In coaxing Corbyn towards his better self, Starmer is Dr Jekyll. But Mr Hyde, aka Seumas Milne, is ever-present, urging the dear leader never to concede an inch to his critics – ‘Blairite scum’ sort of thing – and hating the European Union because it isn’t, well, the Soviet Union.
Milne kept Corbyn away from a second referendum far longer than I expected, partly because the Labour leader is genuinely anxious about how to handle Labour Leave voters and MPs in the north of England, a swathe of the country he doesn’t understand from his Islington constituency and Barnet allotment. That said, the idea that everyone in those areas is a Leave voter is a myth which only serves the Brexiteers.
Corbyn also hates to be pinned down. So even as he executed his pivot this week, he wouldn’t concede that Remain would definitely be an option in his referendum.
Milne had persuaded him to present it as a ‘confirmatory referendum’ on Theresa May’s deal (a proposal put forward by the Labour MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson last week) or on Labour’s ‘better Brexit’.
It is inconceivable there could be such a referendum without a Remain option, and Kyle/Wilson are clear that Remain would be the alternative. So it might seem bizarre to struggle against the inevitable.
But not in Corbyn land. ‘Never conciliate or concede’ is a cardinal rule of Milne/far-Left factional politics. Milne still believes in the possibility of bringing about the final collapse of May’s government, and the final triumph of Corbyn, if they exploit rather than endorse the momentum towards a referendum.
Milne’s decision to brief directly against Starmer and Emily Thornberry, when they told the media there would definitely be a Remain option, was an extreme step even for him. But he is determined to maintain room for manoeuvre and ambiguity, and has Corbyn’s support in doing so.
May, ever more deluded and imprisoned by the European Research Group, is now attempting the even more extraordinary feat of agreeing a ‘short limited extension’ to Article 50, to avoid going over the cliff in four weeks time, while still keeping no-deal on the table.
So we aren’t yet in the promised land. But Corbyn may this week have facilitated the parting of the Red Sea so that people of Britain can pass to a place of safety. His support will not be enough on its own to guarantee a People’s Vote, but it would be a crucial step towards one. And we all have a role to play in the final push. Now, more than ever, MPs from all sides need to see the level of public anger. So start your preparations for the Put It To The People march, on March 23, and make sure you will be there.