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MICHAEL WHITE: Have the Tiggers and Corbyn made a People’s Vote more likely?

After Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on a week when things started to shift… but in which direction?

Well, has it finally happened? Has the stalemate finally broken in favour of a second referendum and the prospect that voters will grab the chance to stay in the European Union, as polls now regularly report they would? As the clock, kicked can, cliff and other exhausted metaphors edge relentlessly towards that March 29 exit, has Jeremy Corbyn really been pushed off the Brexit fence rather than split his party irreparably? Perhaps, but don’t break open the Aperol yet. There are too many moving parts in this machine and some of them are as unreliable as a cheap dishwasher. Under dissident pressure of her own, Theresa May moved quickly to neutralise Labour’s move and push her plan again. Perhaps that’s what Corbyn’s worldlier strategists secretly hoped would happen.

Either way, Monday night’s concession statement ahead of a difficult weekly meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party was potentially a very significant moment, though its meaning, let alone its consequences, are still far from certain.

Corbyn’s statement to his MPs was described by one as ‘like watching a hostage read out a ransom note’. We’ve had that graceless experience with him before, haven’t we? When Remainer, Emily Thornberry later told the television cameras her Islington neighbour would campaign for Remain in any future referendum, the millions who remember his cynical non-performance last time were entitled to a hollow laugh.

But we are where we are, and People’s Vote campaigners also earned a spot of entitlement on Monday, to pat themselves on the back. From no-hopers to contenders, it has been a long slog about which many fellow-Remainers – me among them – have been sceptical.

Cynically or not, Corbyn has undoubtedly given ground, as the furious response of pro-Brexit Labour MPs like John Mann confirm. Faced with the threat of more defections among MPs – and pro-EU activists, let’s not forget them – and haemorrhaging voter support to the (amorphous) Independent Group, the Labour leader was apparently taken hostage by his shadow chancellor. John McDonnell – he’s actually shadow leader – has been moving towards a People’s Vote for months, lest Corbyn’s May-like stubbornness cost the party any chance of winning the next election. The Times mischievously reports Jezza ‘curiously’ unalarmed by that risk. No.10 or the allotment? That’s a tough one.

Knowing what we know about the Trotskyite, pro-Brexit credentials of Team Corbyn its shift might better be described as a shifty. Support for a new referendum was made contingent on the Commons defeat of Labour’s five-point (previously six) version of Brexit – a customs union and single market alignment, which Corbyn says Brussels would accept (I bet they would). Only if May’s deal passes will Labour seek to have it put to a deal vs Remain referendum – though the details (even the option of a no-deal on the ballot paper) are still unclear.

As Theresa May keeps reminding everyone, delay does not solve the knotty problems of the future EU/UK relationship, but it looks increasingly inevitable, whatever she was saying publicly, until she too gave ground in her Tuesday Commons statement. Now governing by whips office numbers (‘how do we get a majority?’), she risked further backbench defections and the threat of up to 15 ministerial resignations, three from her cabinet. In the disciplinary disorder which Europe has periodically generated for 50 years, the threats were signalled publicly via the born-again, loyalist Daily Mail.

So May came up with her latest three-pronged retreat: the promised March 12 second meaningful vote (the one defeated by 230 votes in January) on her deal; if that is defeated a March 13 vote on leaving the EU with no deal, no Withdrawal Agreement or transition; failing that, a March 14 vote on seeking a ‘short, limited extension’ to Article 50.

Most sensible MPs think one will be needed anyway because the UK has not got the necessary transition legislation in place and the concession may have done the trick (‘I’m provisionally satisfied,’ said one) in buying off the moderate Tory rebels: they wouldn’t back Cooper-Letwin’s threat to take over proceedings, they will back May’s version of a short extension. Others disagreed. Cooper promised to battle on. Ken Clarke asked for a longer, calmer extension to plan the next, harder stage of Brexit. Good point, but no chance.

Up to that point it had been just another bewildering week in May’s multi-dimensional Brexit negotiations with Europe, her ministers, parliament and the country. A statement here, a tack there, a trip to see Angela or Jean-Claude. Tired of a Brussels backdrop? Let’s try a beach shot, the EU-Arab summit in sandier Sharm el-Sheikh, almost as sunny as Britain this week.

Cue for Sharm Offensive jokes. Cue also for billiard cue, a real cue and one of the PM’s more improbable television photo-opportunities. She didn’t pocket the ball, but she didn’t tear the cloth either. Back to business: a delay here, a concession there, a claim that progress is being made everywhere. ‘Gosh, look at the clock, must dash.’ And off Theresa dashes back to the safety of the Downing St bunker while everyone else boils with frustration at the ‘meaningful vote’ being postponed again until March 12.

Former Tory turned columnist Matthew Parris, finally lost patience with May this week and called her the ‘Death Star’, fatal to all she encounters. Hers is a paradoxical position. Widely accused of stubborn, unimaginative use of the clock to blackmail circling opponents into accepting her revised deal (plus backstop side letter), she is also charged with losing all authority over her warring cabinet and party. Like Chelsea manager, Maurizio Sarri, trying to substitute his goalkeeper minutes before Sunday night’s League Cup defeat, she has lost the cabinet dressing room. Like Sarri she denies it and refuses to take no-deal off the table.

Yet the progress that caught my attention more than I expected a week ago was the impact of last week’s eight Labour and three Tory defections (plus Labour’s Ian Austin) and its transitioning into the Independent Group (minus Ian Austin) with a reported 14% share of the opinion poll vote. Whoops, no… Tuesday’s YouGov poll made that 18%. Add it to 6% support recorded for Vince Cable’s Lib Dems and they sneak ahead of Corbyn Labour on just 23%. It’s all hot air, up today and down again tomorrow in these volatile, alienated times. But interesting hot air. Labour’s private polling must be telling a similar story for McDonnell to have strong-armed Jezza as he did.

First the breakaways were TIG. By the weekend several of the 11 cross-party rebels seemed happy to be seen as ‘Tiggers’ – a tribute to Winnie the Pooh’s relentlessly optimistic friend, reassuring proof that author A. A. Milne is still more resonant in British public life than namesake Seumas (so far).

The Tiggers’ tone and body language were mostly positive. It was also striking to see women MPs – Luciana Berger, Heidi Allen and the pyrotechnic Anna Soubry – effectively playing such conspicuous roles. Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon had fun teasing them about policy divergences – Soubry is a big fan of George Osborne’s counter-productive austerity drive, other Tiggers aren’t – but the centrists can get away with just sounding nice for a while.

And they’ve already made an impact on the parties they left. Ex-colleagues are said to have been more supportive than angry and the leadership has been forced to replace threats and loyalty pledges with conciliation.

Peacemaker Tom Watson’s plan to set up a social democratic caucus inside Labour to offset the hardliners and Momentum roughly balances the Brexit Delivery Group’s efforts to rally Tory moderates against the zealots of the European Research Group (ERG), but do so – unlike the Tiggers – from inside the two-party structure.

‘Brexiteers are not far-right zealots,’ protests Boris Johnson. But they might sweep you away too. That much was obvious to anyone who caught Nigel Farage on YouTube, ignorantly abusing Swedish MP, Anna Maria Corazza Bildt. She was elegant and spoke better English than Farage. It was ugly.

That’s one reason why I remain nervous about the prospects for a second referendum if it overcomes all the hurdles still in its way. It’s hard for reason to defeat zeal, especially when coupled with anger and mendacity on a scale likely to be far nastier than last time because Leave voters will insist that the 2016 verdict’s legitimacy must stand. Facebook’s ban on Stephen ‘Tommy Robinson’ Yaxley-Lennon reinforces the elite conspiracy narrative. As with ‘resign and fight a by-election’ taunts at the Tiggers, we are all guilty of inconsistency and utterances that look silly or hypocritical, Leave campaigners far more than complacent Remainers.

The other day, Andrew Cooper, a Cameron peer whose teams interview 2,000 focus group voters every week, 
set out in stark terms how much most voters ‘just want this to be over with’ and how much they still don’t grasp about what divides the MPs they lazily despise.

Many think the current row embraces our future UK/EU trading relationship when that still lies ahead. One in three admit not to understanding what no-deal means, one in eight think it means leaving but otherwise life as before.

Five per cent – more than that 52:48% majority in 2016 – think no-deal means staying in the EU. The shift in public opinion as the implications of Brexit do sink in arises mostly not from Brexit voters changing their minds, though more do than switch the other way. It comes from young pro-EU voters replacing older pro-Brexits who have died and from among those who did not vote in 2016, but say they would next time.

Cooper claims that points to an 8% to 10% majority for Remain – 55% to 45% – against a Brexit few understand and most no longer want, despite the anger on Twitter and the airwaves.

Is that enough to confer legitimacy that trumps 2016? Only if the swing is decisive and – more important in my opinion – the turnout is greater than the 72.2% last time.

Remember, Remain won in low turnout areas. Given its propensity to error and absence of both empathy and remedies for the economically and culturally left-behinds, I am far from sure Remain would pull it off. Record employment levels, reflected in this week’s reports of buoyant tax receipts, make it harder to sell the story of declining investment and foreign confidence in UK Plc.

Matthew d’Ancona’s splendid but loftily dismissive phrase – ‘mythical nativism’ – is not a great campaign slogan. The EU27’s own behaviour during any such campaign cannot be safely guaranteed to be helpful, even if no one says a word about Brexit.

In any case, we have not got there yet. May’s narrative pitch, that right-wing exponents of mythical nativism – Boris wearing woad – must eventually vote for her deal to prevent no Brexit, is buttressed by Corbyn’s shift to accommodate the People’s Vote.

On radio and television Keir Starmer, his Brexit spokesman, was highly disciplined as he navigated his way through the high command’s tortured logic that allows everyone to have cake and eat it, as long as Labour can escape its share of blame for ‘the damaging Tory Brexit’.

If May’s deal gets through parliament there should be ‘the lock of a public vote’, he tells weary listeners. The choice will be between May’s version and Remain, he says. So does Thornberry, only to be contradicted for ‘misspeaking’ by an anonymous Corbyn source.

Are there 50 Labour MPs who oppose a second referendum and will ride to May’s rescue? Are there up to 60 Tories who may swing the other way? Will enough of the Moggster ERG blink? Starmer, who once said ‘we must respect the referendum result’, now says Labour gave May a two-year window to enact the result and she has failed. ‘Take off the blinkers and remove your red lines,’ the ones she painted long ago against the single market and customs union, against any concession to free movement, says Sir Keir. Embrace Labour’s credible alternative.

Collaborate in no such project, Northern MPs in hard-pressed Brexit seats tell Corbyn – or you will never be prime minister.

Has the Tiggers’ defection and Corbyn’s shift made a People’s Vote more likely? Or has the new alignment given those Northern rebels the excuse they and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s troops need to help get her over the line? Not long to wait now.

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