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Jeremy Corbyn has noble sentiments but a muddy message on Brexit

(Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

What Brexit Britain desperately needs is a clear message from the Opposition, but the Labour leadership continues to heap chaos on top of confusion

Business likes certainty. Markets like clarity. Politicians who have been painted into a tight corner, often by their own careless brushstrokes, prefer a bit of latitude, even freedom to change the whole colour scheme if the proposed makeover is as challenging as Britain’s Brexit strategy.

Despite a remarkably upbeat economic start to the new year (what stuff are they all on?) week two of 2017 has been unsettling for business, The City and for Whitehall.

Week three will usher in Donald Trump’s presidency across the fast-widening Atlantic. The old order is creaking in a howling winter gale.

After being dubbed ‘Theresa MayBe’ by the bright young things at the Economist, the Prime Minister’s appearance on Sky News’ new Sunday sofa show sent sterling into a fresh dive.

The currency sank over renewed concern that her Delphic (‘no running commentary’) utterances only flimsily conceal a Hard Brexit heart, one that is more concerned with Middle Britain’s migration worries than with mere economic growth.

Yet May’s television appearance was meant to frame the ‘sharing society’ narrative of Monday’s speech about mental health. Its champions are sceptical about the extra funding her words will warrant to succeed. If growth cannot pay for it, who will? Certainly not the ‘disorderly’ Brexit which some now fear.

In Monday’s media coverage such mundane housekeeping questions got predictably swamped by May’s Hard Brexit hints. Next day when it was Jeremy Corbyn’s turn to tempt fate the opposite happened.

He offered a speech designed to ‘clarify’ Labour’s position on the EU’s freedom of movement rule in the Brexit negotiations to come. Not content with only adding to existing confusion he was easily lured into the deeper waters of caps on executive pay and his support for striking railway unions, both ill-considered and provocative to many.

To muddy his message further Corbyn included Farage-esque suggestions that Britain might be better off after Brexit and that, yes, there would be more money for the NHS as a result. By nightfall Labour’s confusion had become the story. Lucky May.

The original clarification exercise was not before time. Labour’s twice-anointed leader has been admirably consistent in his longstanding defence of the right of EU workers, as well as other would-be migrants from poorer and more distant lands, to seek a better future in Britain.

What has concerned him – as he said again in Tuesday’s tour of the broadcasting studios – is that they are being lured to this country by unscrupulous agencies who house them in grim conditions and hire them out to employers seeking to undercut local wage rates.

Corbyn’s remedy for reducing the flow is tougher UK labour regulation: he wants them better protected by the Agency Workers Directive and other constraints. Higher wages, local recruitment adverts and better conditions will also deter abuse.

Noble sentiments, though at variance with many of the agreed facts and with the opinions – prejudices if you prefer – of Labour voters who backed Brexit to help curb immigration and are mostly not the ‘bigots’ of Gordon (no Corbynista) Brown’s angry imaginings.

Not all low skilled migrants are like the poor Chinese cockle pickers, drowned by a gang master’s callous carelessness in Morecombe Bay or zero hours workers at Sports Direct. Not all Eastern England’s fruit would be picked by cheerful locals if migrants were not there to help. Motivated and multi-lingual graduates from Spain or Lithuania cheerfully do bar and restaurant work all over Britain, even in poorer regions where the local curry house was long the only visible concession to exotic foreignness.

‘Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle,’ was Corbyn’s key soundbite, the one his advisers were promoting in advance. Not as snappy as ‘take back control,’ is it? But by Corbyn standards, it was a concession.

It has been made in the larger context of seeking to retain Britain’s access to the EU’s single market by reducing the attractiveness of cheap Romanian labour to rogue employers and thereby reducing numbers without breaching the freedom of movement rule. It sounds too good to be true in practice and it probably is, certainly too complicated to the kind of frustrated voters who says ‘Why can’t we just leave?’.

No, I don’t believe the Queen said it (as reported) because she’s too well-informed for such saloon bar simplicities. But we can all understand why others do. It is not designed to be true in practice, it is designed to try and square political circles for the time being.

But don’t knock Corbyn’s incoherent ambiguity too hard. It’s not as if May’s known position is any more cogent on the thorny issues she has promised to confront by Article 50 day – March 31. That’s why Our Man in Brussels, Sir Ivan Rogers, quit in such noisy high dudgeon.

It wasn’t just that he felt excluded from the tightly drawn Downing St loop (most ministers feel that way, and not just on Brexit). He suspects that, even privately, No 10 does not yet have a serious negotiating strategy as HMS Britannia drifts towards the Brexit weir. Don’t expect Nigel Farage to help with the heavy lifting, he’s got a new radio show and is planning a trip to the Trump inaugural.

The president-elect thinks he’s a better actor than Meryl Streep. Fresh from taking the Archbishop of Canterbury to task for selling Britain short, Farage merely mocked May for being dull as Trump abused Ms Streep for being an over-rated star and Hillary Cinton hack.

All of which was entertaining, but none of which eased concerns of Labour MPs whose eyes are on their party’s footloose voters, those north of Spaghetti Junction actively being courted by Paul Nuttall, Farage’s understudy as Ukip leader – Dmitry Medvedev to Nigel’s Vladimir Putin.

Assorted Labour critics had been urging their leader to acknowledge public concerns over immigration and to change course. His own estranged trades union deputy, Tom Watson, reduced to tabloid-mocked evasion on weekend television, is one such. So is Yvette Cooper, defeated leadership contestant and wife of ballroom dancer, Ed Balls. Promising newcomers like Emma Reynolds and Stephen Kinnock have suggested a two-tier system whereby skilled EU workers with promised jobs can still arrive at Heathrow, but quotas would be imposed on the less skilled or fruit pickers.

The trouble is that such talk – also doing the rounds among problem-focussed Tories – invites derisory accusations of ‘UKIP lite’ from Labour purists, especially those who can afford to appreciate the hardworking skills of Polish plumbers or Lithuanian nannies.

Even more important it also falls foul of the EU’s ‘four freedoms’ rule which even pragmatic Angela Merkel keeps saying she will not abandon. For different reasons EU bigwigs like Jean Claude Juncker and Poland’s Donald Tusk say the same. So do Corbyn’s fellow EU socialist leaders who he is inviting to solidarity talks in London next month. They certainly don’t want to add to their own youth unemployment problems inside the Eurozone.

What Corbyn seems to be saying sidesteps that problem. External controls may be a no-no, but internal regulatory ones (France’s beloved ID cards are one such) are not. Old EU lags like Denis MacShane – former Blair Europe minister and reformed euro-sceptic – are telling anyone who listens that this is important.

In his 34 years as an MP, Corbyn has never liked the open EU market or its managed competition regime – other leftwingers like MacShane used to share his distain – but his advisers have persuaded him that leaving the single market (and by implication the customs union the Chancellor seems determined to retain) would be a disaster. ‘Unilateral Economic Disarmament’ as MacShane puts it in a humorous tribute to Jez’s enduring CND loyalties.

As a political sticking plaster it will not do much to staunch the flow of electoral blood away from Labour, let alone placate Labour MPs. Even Unite’s truculent leader, Len McCluskey, (privately never a Corbyn enthusiast, more a prisoner of his executive) has noticed that it’s not going well for Corbyn in the polls and that the Tories are 10% ahead in many polls when a lacklustre government mishandling the NHS and striking rail workers should be 10% behind – at least.

If things don’t improve by 2019, changes may be needed at the top, concedes McCluskey (who hopes to be still in place himself at the time). This is bold talk by the standards of Corbynista Labour with its vision of a better past. Lucky May again, she need not waste much time worrying about a threat from Labour until it is under new management that knows how to manage.

Nor is her position under much threat yet from her own side, though that cannot last for ever. Party critics say she is narrow minded, a control freak but one who is resolute for indecision, that it is only a matter of time before her shortcomings are cruelly exposed by events. Admirers insist she has done well from what was an unexpected standing start six month ago, that she is a good listener who knows her own mind and speaks it after her guarded fashion. The Stealth Prime Minister can safely leave the pyrotechnics to Boris Johnson, who has been busy in the US this week scraping off the custard pies he threw at Trump’s Tower.

But her biggest ally is not of her own devising. The bulk of the economics trade, which predicted a sharp contraction of the economy if voters defied their advice on June 23, has been confounded by a raft of upbeat figures which wards off May’s foes like garlic does a vampire. Bank of England grandee, Andrew Haldane, called it a Michael Fish moment in honour of the storm-battered weather forecaster. Others have demanded apologies and repentance. But few of the miscreants – candidates to become Daily Mail enemies of the people – wish to repent. As the Financial Time’s Chris Giles put it, the trade expected voters to do what they did after the 2008 bank crash, to increase their savings, not to borrow more, as a precaution against uncertainty or hard times to come.

That they did not do either means that consumers are right to anticipate prosperity ahead (as Mr Corbyn also says might happen) or have been misled into thinking it. More prosaically they may just be spending money they realise will soon be worth less as that dwindling pound impacts on prices. If Brexit is going to be any kind of car crash it is now clear it will be a slow motion one.

Consumer confidence is a fragile thing and shows signs of following sterling downwards along with high street sales after a strong fourth quarter performance for the economy overall.

The arrival of Team Trump on the White House lawn is certain to add to uncertainty, even as the new president’s promised tax cuts and infrastructure spending gives the US economy a short-term boost.

Elections in key EU states – France and Germany, the Netherlands and (probably) Italy – pose another imponderable. As that other enemy of the Daily Mail, Mark Carney, put it – courtesy of Tennessee Williams – Britain’s debts make it dependant on the kindness of strangers. There are few signs that President Trump’s kindness is of the reliable variety and old EU hands keep saying that Paris, Brussels and Berlin are not bluffing in their severity either. Not even David Davis, the shrewdest of May’s Brexit trio, understands that, they say.

That makes Sir Ivan’s departure more than a five minute wonder. Some of those who know the outgoing ambassador well conceded that his record and temperament did not make him the best man to lead Whitehall’s Brexit brigade, that his replacement, the more emollient Sir Tim Barrow is a better bet. But both Sir Ivan’s own resignation statement and his more partisan critics’ response provide evidence of the tense and testy times we must endure for the foreseeable future. Sir Ivan was both lionised and denigrated, one Whitehall Powell brother (Blair’s Jonathan) fell out in the public prints with another, Thatcher’s Charles. He was called ‘petulant’ by the petulant Iain Duncan Smith.

Two points are worth making. One is that this month’s obituaries to the late Treasury mandarin, Sir Douglas Wass, reminded readers that an able and confident official should be able to serve Labour’s Denis Healey and his very different Tory successor, Geoffrey (‘dead sheep’) Howe, with equal diligence. This did not happen and – point number two – neither Sir Ivan nor his detractors seem to have behaved as they should. The ambassador was leaked against by No 10 insiders. Only a small prize for guessing which ones.

Brexit Britain does not have the depth of experience in diplomats, in trade negotiators, in wise and calm ministers or their special advisers, that it can afford any more such losses. Both sides are at fault and must try harder. Brussels and Berlin are at fault too, but likely to prove more united in the coming negotiation. There was a time when an isolated London could seek succour in a Washington that may be about to change profoundly too as China demands more of its attention. One hundred years after the Russian Revolution and America’s entry into World War I as the emerging global hegemon, we are again in the grip of large impersonal forces which demand more than 140 characters on Twitter.

• Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian

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