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MICHAEL WHITE: Jeremy Corbyn must come in from the cold over Brexit

Time is running out. Can Corbyn be the agent of change? Illustration: Gary Barker. - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on those ludicrous spy stories . . . and why Labour’s leader must come in from the cold over Brexit.

The Rees-Mogg posse is circling Theresa May’s wagons with a threatening letter, but she is not the only one feeling the heat. Conscientious readers of the Sunday newspapers may have noticed that Jeremy Corbyn was more than usually ‘under pressure’ last weekend, the flak coming in from both directions. From Neil Kinnock in the Observer and elsewhere came demands that he come off the Brexit fence in support of Britain remaining in both the EU’s single market and the customs union.

The chances of that happening seemed about as slight as Momentum giving Labour NEC veteran, Ann Black, a clear run at being elected chair of the party’s National Policy Forum (‘democratically elected’ as Momentum capos say when they chalk up a win). But after taking a menacing prod at the City on Tuesday corbyn talked about having to stay ‘in some form of customs union’ – if only (he thinks politically, not about economics) to save a border-free Ireland.

That’s slight progress towards the soft Brexit that polls say most Labour members want – and the Tory European Research Group’s ‘ransom note’ to May on Tuesday night is designed to head off.

It’s a further reminder that Jeremy’s fence-sitting can’t go on forever, as the sand streams out of the Brexit egg-timer. It emerged during Labour’s conference bun fight in Leeds (cries of ‘old school control freakery’) that none of the eight policy commissions Labour has set up since its election defeat addresses Brexit, the great challenge of the decade. Jeremy hardly ever tweets about it either.

But events beyond the leader’s office’s control are moving fast. Though the omens are currently gloomy – as usual – Theresa May hopes to get a transition deal sorted out by May and David Davis headed south this week to assure EU partners that Brexit Britain will not lapse into a ‘Mad Max’ dystopia – or even become a new Singapore, or the Republic of Mogg’s illusion of ‘Full Regulatory Autonomy’.

Drip-drip leaks suggest the cabinet may be edging towards some form of regulatory alignment to protect trade in goods and financial services. Not one that is inside the single market or customs union, obviously, but, well, er, close to it. Peers and MPs, the CBI and Institute of Directors – the IoD can’t easily be dismissed as a corporatist softy – and the (‘more to lose than anyone’) farmers can’t be fobbed off for ever.

They all want clarity and they want it now, from No 10, but also from Labour whose votes matter in any parliamentary showdown. Team Corbyn may hope that ambiguity will carry it through to rich pickings on May 3 when 151 important English local authorities and a few mayors go to the polls for the first time since 2014, when Labour pipped the Tories by a modest 31% to 29%.

Theresa May could lose half her council seats (what price Thatcherite Barnet?) in pro-Remain London, according to ex-Conservative MP and polling pundit, Rob Hayward. But incumbent governments usually suffer a town hall hammering mid-term and Labour nationally is stalled on more-or-less level pegging with May around 40% apiece. That’s pretty dire really when this government is a sitting duck.

Is Corbyn’s long-standing hostility to the ‘capitalist EU’s interference’ and his fear of alienating Labour’s impoverished Brexit voters in the regions (not you, Seumas) costing him Remain or soft Brexit votes in the South? Their anxieties about the direction of Brexit were not assuaged by Boris Johnson’s ‘Big Tent’ speech last week. Parliamentary votes loom that require decisions.

If the sands of Brexit time are running through the egg-timer and threatening to block Jeremy’s nostrils, Fleet Street is not paying much attention to it this week. The Observer may fret about the single market, the FT may worry about the Irish border. But red top knickers are in a twist about Agent COB, as the youthful MP for Islington North was known to spies at the Czechoslovak embassy in the dying years of the Cold War. That was the other ‘Corbyn under pressure’ on Sunday paper front pages.

I have mixed feelings about this. It is scarcely a secret that Corbyn was always a sucker for all sorts of liberation struggles and human rights, mostly the right kind of struggles and rights, those under threat and worse from the uglier side of American power or the Brits in Belfast. Russian or, more recently Chinese, expansionism passes him by. Russia is waging bloody war in Syria. Beijing is not building beach resorts on the Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

Does Jez have a view? I doubt it. Would he have visited the Chinese embassy for tea and an angry protest to a sympathetic official? Probably not. These are grooming exercises by mostly third-rate agents with expense accounts to justify. They big up their sources – just as journalists sometimes do for similar reasons. ‘Are you really telling me you had curry and four pints of lager with Tony Benn on a Saturday night?’ a tabloid colleague recalls being asked by his sceptical accounts department.

Was Corbyn a Czech agent, let alone a paid one? Of course not. Think of him more as a bot. Were other leading Labour figures compromised? Yes, I have friends in past Labour governments who saw MI5’s lists of suspects. The names won’t all have been wrong, it’s what happened in the John le Carré era. But herbivorous Jez? Come off it! They’d have sued to get their money back if he’d ever been on the cash ledger.

It doesn’t stop the Sun, the Telegraphs, the Mail and – albeit more sensibly – the Times devoting acres of blameless wood pulp to mischievous speculation and ‘Time To Be Open Comrade Corbyn’ smears, mostly from the days when Margaret Thatcher regarded Nelson Mandela as a terrorist and bloodthirsty crooks like Chile’s General Pinochet as a friend.

It’s worse than that. Reading Stephen Glover’s Daily Mail denunciation of the BBC and Guardian for ‘not a single word’ of coverage (not quite true) I couldn’t help recalling all the bogus Labour-baiting stories the Mail has been identified with over the decades. You don’t remember the Zinoviev Letter of 1923 which helped finish off the first Labour government. But it was cooked up by the security services and knowingly printed by what Michael Foot forever after called ‘The Forger’s Gazette’.

Foot? The romantic English patriot and bibliophile was supposed to be a Kremlin agent too. Glover’s selective amnesia extended to the BBC supposedly underplaying Peter Mandelson’s second cabinet sacking, an act of Blairite cowardice in the face of tabloid terror which was subsequently shown to be unjustified. Ditto David Blunkett’s second defenestration, courtesy of a fake sting.

That’s not to say there are no questions worth asking in the hope of getting answers from Corbyn and his close associates, questions about their poor geo-political judgement over decades and their wonky sense of morality. Earnest young voters who don’t know much about Cold War times need to learn and learn sensibly. When the Mail denounced Ed Miliband’s father as ‘the man who hated Britain’ (Ralph Miliband fought in the war while Lord Rothermere merely stopped writing pro-Nazi articles) its sheer unfairness killed all further discussion about Ed’s early influences. It often does.

Thus the high-handed treatment of that conference in Leeds (cue more accusations of sexist bullying) remind us all that John McDonnell is yet to apologise for his ‘joke’ about lynching Esther McVey. Instead Corbyn flowers were left for a homeless Portuguese rough sleeper who died in a Westminster subway – but turns out to have been an illegal, deported after being imprisoned for child abuse. And if that sounds unfair, those posthumous flowers also sound like gesture politics. I’d worry more about that if I was Jez.

There’s a read-across here to the Labour leadership’s Brexit ambiguity. In both cases the usual response is to denounce the media for causing trouble, deny the allegations and then try to sit it out. Agent COB doesn’t say much about Brexit or about tea with Czech spy, Jan Sarkocy, does he? He’s happier condemning ‘routine racist abuse’ of Muslim women.

But after the suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring no one really needed Vaclav Havel or Czech expat, Tom Stoppard, to explain what was going on inside the Warsaw Pact satellites. Its legacy of brutal power politics lingers on – a growing authoritarian headache for the EU, as Hungary’s Victor (‘last bastion against Islamisation’) Orban again reminded us this week and Poland does too often.

Oddly enough, fear of the authoritarian tide, so widespread across the affluent west in 2018 – despite Professor Steven Pinker’s new book extolling ‘Enlightenment’ optimism – fuels another strand in the current British debate as May tries to unite her cabinet behind a coherent version of Brexit that will not do too much harm.

Both in the prime minister’s own speech at the Munich security conference and in the foreign secretary’s ‘Uniting for a Great Brexit’ speech a few days earlier the aim was clearly to calm anxieties. At Tuesday’s NFU conference Michael Gove was trying to do the same. Guess which one said: ‘Brexit is not some great V-sign at the cliffs of Dover’? Right first time, It wasn’t Theresa.

Except among the Brexit cheerleaders Boris and Theresa didn’t cut much ice at home or in the watching chancelleries of Europe. Much of what both ministers said invited the response: ‘Well, you can achieve what you say you want to achieve just as well inside the EU. No one is stopping you selling more to India or China, having an independent foreign policy or stronger regulation? You already have the powers, all you have to do is use them.’

May’s list of all that the UK contributes to European defence, security and intelligence – from nuclear subs and the SAS to GCHQ’s big ears – was taken elsewhere as a veiled threat. Don’t punish us for ideological reasons, she said. But they feel punished by us for such reasons. Apart from the French (who blame Britain for enlargement to the east and the single market), a new poll confirms that most still want us to stay.

Brexit is neither a panacea nor a pandemic, conceded Boris the globalising unifier. And ‘the success of Brexit depends on what we make of it together’. All true and – as things currently stand – I also happen to share his fear that a second referendum would do serious harm to our political and social cohesion without changing the result. But the foreign secretary’s substantive arguments were thin. They remind listeners yet again that – on the toss of a coin – he could have been a Remainer and now seeks to make the best of a shakey job.

At least May’s crab-like strategy is clearer than Boris’s formula of public emollience combined with aggressive private briefing against compromises which are likely to be needed eventually. The prime minister sets out red lines in public, lines from which she tiptoes away in private. We saw it before Christmas when a £40 billion (and counting?) divorce bill was presented as a triumph. We saw it in Munich when she conceded a continuing role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on security matters. We hear it too when Take Back Control Gove offers farmers a special regime for seasonal migrant workers. With the prospect that pragmatism will gradually isolate the hard-core Brexit ideologues, albeit in a process that Dan Roberts – in his David Davis profile in Tuesday’s Guardian – called ‘Pythonesque’. But that will require Corbyn’s Labour to firm up Tuesday’s shift to put the national interest and a soft Brexit ahead of what may be perceived to be short-term party interest. Agent COB’s track record is not encouraging.

The fear that it may all be slipping away from them may help explain the 62 MPs’ alarm in the Mogg letter and why the hard Brexit crew has been engaged in denouncing the embittered savagery of diehard Remainers. Ex-Berkeley campus Trot, Janet Daley in the Sunday Telegraph, Dominic Lawson in the Mail, Melanie (‘better poor and free’) Phillips in the Times have expressed themselves astonished by the belittling vehemence of their arrogant, elitist opponents.

Fair enough. Some dreadful things are still said, in defiance of Boris’s plea to be nicer to each other. Some Remainer things I read, even in the saintly New European, make me cringe. Who was it who said Brexit is neither a panacea nor a pandemic? Wise words. Oxfam’s week of exploitation shame is not a good one for champions of the liberal international order either. But are accusations that Brexit voters are thick and racist xenophobes (etc etc) any worse than the abuse hurled from the opposite direction at the ‘Enemies of the People’ – Jewish ones too – at the ‘Traitors’ and the ‘Saboteurs’? Voiceless against the might of the BBC and Guardian pinkos? As a devotee of Twitter, I don’t think so. Agent COB also attracted some very immature abuse, even from serving ministers. We must all do better.

So it was with pleasure that I read in the Sunday Times a long article by in-house polymath, Bryan Appleyard, that 40 brave academics of left and right have dared to form what the Mail later called ‘Brains for Brexit’ – actually Briefings for Brexit. Historian Robert Tombs and his Cambridge economist colleague, Graham Gudgin, tell a sorry story of colleagues too intimidated by career fears to speak out, of being cold-shouldered and patronised. Both Remainers in 1975, they’ve even poked some holes in Project Fear’s economic scenario in 2016.

Excellent, excellent. Anything that raises the tone of public debate on Brexit options is devoutly to be welcomed, though there is a bright-eyed quality to Appleyard’s report common to political initiatives by well-meaning amateurs. I happen to have chaired a debate in which Professor Tombs took part last year and he seemed very nice. I also met another supporter, Oxford’s Professor Nigel Biggar, recently the object of vicious attacks for suggesting the British Empire wasn’t (Jeremy, please note) all bad. But do they really know what they’ve taken on? The public forum is currently a pretty rough one, even by vicious academic standards. How will the poor chaps feel at being on the same side as Nigel Farage or even Melanie Phillips?

My strong feeling remains that the hard Brexit crew is doing what their self-proclaimed ally, President Trump, often does.

They declare awkward facts ‘fake news’, denounce the other side for vices which are their own and plan to ‘take back control’ for a rival elite, less fastidious than Professor Biggar.

Graham Gudgin is already showing signs of scruple. His own calculations suggest that UK Brexit GDP will be 0.25% lower by 2030 – but that all-important GDP per capita will be unaffected. I’m sure it’s what Boris has in mind.

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