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MICHAEL WHITE: The Labour leadership fudge that may end up rejected by both sides

The colossus of rose: Martin Rowson - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE says the wheels on the Brexit bus are once again stuck in mud – with no signs of rescue.

Reading about the Democratic Unionist Party’s insouciant approach (‘crisis, what crisis?’) to this week’s local elections in Northern Ireland I was struck by the party’s intransigence in the face of inconvenient facts, economic, cultural and political. Then an awful thought struck me. Has the Brexit-fixated Conservative party in mainland Britain become our own version of the DUP, fact-proof, nostalgic, stubbornly insular and proud of it? Come to think of it, is Corbynite Labour, in its small-minded hypocrisies and smug self-absorption, a strange mutation of its friends in Sinn Féin, albeit without SF’s handy American contacts book?

We’ll come back to next week’s 20th anniversary of the UK’s first devolution elections in a moment, since the dynamics of devolution have forced themselves up the Brexit agenda again, not least via Spain’s troubling general election. Sunday saw populist and nationalists – via the right-wing Vox – get a toehold in another European parliament, despite millions of Spaniards having first-hand memories of brutal nationalist dictatorship. Strasbourg, here we come?

But first, the weekly challenge of finding some cheery news for beleaguered TNE readers. It doesn’t get any easier as the wheels of the Brexit bus stay stuck in the mud month after month with no obvious prospect of rescue, let alone of towing the stricken vehicle off the muddy cliff edge where it teeters like the coach in The Italian Job. ‘You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off,’ Michael Caine said in the film. Michael Gove’s wife borrowed the line after Brexit accidentally won the referendum.

I had not been overly-optimistic about the prospect that Jeremy Corbyn and his minders would throw their arms in the air at Tuesday’s meeting of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) and tell Tom Watson, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Margaret Beckett, 100 plus MPs and MEPs, Momentum leaders and 70-80% of party members: ‘You were right about a second referendum, let’s make a firm pledge in our European election manifesto for May 23.’

So I was not surprised when the transport TSSA union’s amendment in favour of doing so was rejected by a 2-1 majority. Some Remain MPs claimed progress in that the party’s manifesto will ‘back the option’ of a People’s Vote rather than just ‘keep it on the table’ if it fails to cut a deal (customs union, anyone?) with Theresa May or get a general election. OK, if you like, but the piece of furniture it conjured up for me wasn’t a table. It was the two stools Jezza risks falling between. ‘Labour is the only party which represents people who supported Leave and Remain,’ says a spokesman. Hmmm. It’s just possible voters on both sides may reject the leadership-lite fudge.

From a Remain standpoint one has to acknowledge that Team Corbyn has a real dilemma, given that a significant wedge of their voters in Labour-held seats in the Midlands and north are pro-Brexit, many now in favour of a ‘let’s get it over with’ hard Brexit.

In London’s Theresa May-baiting Evening Standard, its supposedly pro-Remain editor George Osborne noted the other day that Labour’s ambiguity may be unheroic, but that heroes often end up dead. That’s the kind of Cameron-Osborne, posh boy cynicism which got us into this mess.

More seriously, an academic blog on the LSE’s Brexit website argues that Labour’s hopes of winning the next election (still 2022, I think) by taking 64 seats (it won 30 in 2017) rests on winning mostly Leave-voting marginal seats, 45 in England and Wales, all of them Tory-held, plus 18 SNP-held seats in Scotland.

There’s a lot of wishful thinking in the piece and the author admits – it’s quite a large hole in his argument – that it’s not possible to prove that the proportion of Leave voters in any constituency reflects the proportion which voted Labour. But it’s still a wake-up point to Remain activists in the south. Fearless, charismatic leadership willing to confront tough choices might square that circle, as editor-at-large Alastair Campbell noted in last week’s TNE. But it’s not on offer. As usual, Corbyn is conspicuously not leading from the front.

Did I say charismatic leadership? Nigel Farage certainly knows how to command attention in our frantic social media age, though not how to tackle the problems he exploits. Far from it, his grievance agenda needs them to fester.

Can the rest of us cheer up at Farage’s off-piste visit to rural Lock Haven, Pennsylvania (pop 9,200), there to lecture a conference of young ‘libertarians’ on racial segregation in Oldham. It’s clearly not that it doesn’t exist, but why travel 3,000 miles to tell Lock Haven, deep in Trump country, what it already knows much closer to home? Why go abroad when you are supposed to be campaigning hard to save the nation (ours, not theirs) from a Brexit-blocking conspiracy on May 23? Could there have been a modest fee in the trip for Nigel, do you suppose?

It might be funny if it was not so serious. But populists get away with outrage because alienated voters lazily say ‘they’re all as bad as each other’. Even the staid Electoral Commission has been moved to warn Theresa May that launching an EU election campaign – her stalled Brexit requires it under EU law – while making clear she doesn’t want to do it, let alone to take up Britain’s 73 seats, is demeaning of the democratic process. It is also a waste of £100 million that should be better spent on schools, police, the NHS or the Northern Powerhouse.

Informal estimates in Strasbourg currently put Labour on 28 seats, the Tories on 17, five apiece for the Lib Dems and Greens, 11 for Change UK and Farage’s Brexit party between them. Wishful thinking, I’d say. The populists are closing in and rival Remain camps are hopelessly divided. UKIP’s new ‘Farage is an Islamophobe too’ video gives hope of a destructive cat-fight on the hard right too.

But No.10 is also reduced to impotent wishful thinking, though it has abandoned Meaningful Vote Four in favour of time-filling legislation that justifies ducking a new Queen’s Speech (would the DUP vote for one?) until October.

Ours is a government too weak and preoccupied to use the time to tackle climate change either, says Lord Stern of the Stern Report. Even the City is now doing better. What do we have on the left? Declaratory ‘climate emergency’ rhetoric and promised help (good) for rural bus services from Jeremy Corbyn, offset by the spectacle of Claire Fox, revolutionary socialist turned ‘libertarian’ and veteran Corbyn-style critic of the EU, signing up as a Farage candidate.

Both pro-immigration and a climate change sceptic, she may be clever enough for Radio 4’s Moral Maze. But Fox’s political views in last week’s Sunday Times were incoherent, sometimes ugly. Claire Fox vs David Attenborough on saving the planet? That’s a tough one. Fox on revitalising working class life via Brexit? Pull the other leg.

So too is the cabinet incoherent, veering to ugly. Such is the collapse of May’s authority, that it seems our cabinet is no longer one that can keep the National Security Council’s agenda secret, the decision to allow limited use of potentially-compromised Huawei software in defiance of US pressure.

Someone whom the cabinet secretary will tactfully fail to identify prefers to leak the NSC’s cabinet split to the Sunday Telegraph for leadership-boosting reasons and then point the finger of blame at someone else. So much for patriotism among pro-Brexit ministers for whom the paper is a leak-conduit of choice, as it is not for Remainers.

Under pressure of events – the New IRA’s murder of journalist Lyra McKee in Derry – May did manage to summon up the political will to join Ireland’s Leo Varadkar in that new round of talks to revive the Stormont Assembly after two years of blame-gaming by the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Don’t get your hopes up. Arlene Foster sounded very civil when blaming Sinn Féin for the stalemate, but equally rigid when her interviewer asked if it wasn’t time for the province to fall in line with the rest of the UK (he tactfully didn’t mention the Republic’s referendum) over gay marriage, for which the formidable McKee campaigned. They want to be just like us, except when they don’t.

Exporting farmers, Belfast business leaders and a majority of the region’s Remain-backing voters are alarmed at the prospect of stalemate leading to a hard Brexit by default. But the DUP’s Foster is more concerned to woo supporters of rival Unionist parties to prevent SF translating its lead in votes at both EU (25.5% to the DUP’s 20.9% and UUP’s 13.3%) and local (24.1% to 23.1% and 16.1%) elections in 2014 into a lead in seats. She fears that would give an Irish green light for a revived campaign for another all-Ireland border poll. That fear is shared by an even more sophisticated politician.

In a 20th anniversary interview with the Institute for Government, the kind of elite think tank which French populists in gilets jaunes would have closed down, Tony Blair was cautiously optimistic about the devolution settlement his new government created in Wales, Scotland and revived in Northern Ireland in 1997-99. But he was worried about a hard Brexit getting Scottish independence over the line as well as reopening the otherwise settled border issue in Ireland. Stormont? ‘There’s just not the bandwidth’ in Whitehall to provide the intense work needed to get it working again, Blair conceded. He’s always so polite, it’s almost old-fashioned.

This is where Spain fits into the wider picture – the squeeze on the middle ground which the populist revolt against globalisation, wage stagnation, unemployment and social liberalisation has driven.

Yes, the mainstream Spanish socialists have done better than merely hung on to power with 123 seats (up from 85), the Corbynite left, Podemos, falling back from 71 to 42. But the long-term damage is the atrophy and division of the centre-right vote with the People’s Party (PP) down from 135 to 66, weakened by the moderate Citizens Party rise from 32 to 57. Vox did not get its hoped-for earthquake, but it came from zero to 10% of the vote and 20 seats in the Cortes

Commentators seem to agree that it was Catalonia’s strictly illegal independence referendum in 2017 and the PP government in Madrid’s over-reaction which triggered the upsurge in flag-waving Spanish nationalism in the rest of the country. Though the internal dynamics of politics varies everywhere it is not hard to spot similarities in divided Unionism in Belfast, Edinburgh and, of course, in London where English nationalism has split the Tory party. The populist panaceas – ‘sovereignty’ and ‘betrayal’ – lend themselves to easy slogans, as more complex responses do not.

Nicola Sturgeon is too smart not to know this. Ahead of the SNP’s spring conference her highly caveated policy statement ‘fired the starting gun’ on plans for a second referendum if the UK leaves the EU by 2021 – an event which would certainly justify one. But polls suggest no marked shift away from the 55%-45% verdict in 2014. One third of Scots voted to leave the EU. And the first minister is still grappling with the currency issue: the pound, a new groat or the euro, on which the EU27 might insist?

What is impressive is that the disciplined SNP is already working hard to frame the debate in its favour. The contrast with the Remain camp’s struggle to form a united front against Brexit is a painful one. Blair, whose IfG interview mischievously noted how the Scottish Tories are recovering via a gap in the Labour/SNP defences (they are ‘pro-Union and pro-reform’ of tired public services), opposes the kind of soft Brexit with which our own Andrew Adonis seemed unexpectedly to be flirting last week. It is a compromise which will anger both sides and fail because it won’t be ‘breaking free of Europe’, only its political structures, says Blair. The government has got to stop attacking parliament and instead force MPs to choose from all the tough options (‘it’s not really a negotiation’), then put that option versus the Remain status quo back to the people.

Class act though he still is, I can’t see my way through on Blair’s map. But May’s ministers don’t have a map, they just have bits of several, mostly marked ‘leadership’. Don’t they notice that our friends in Washington are saying our hopes of a compensatory US trade deal are slim-to-delusional, or that red lights are flashing on the world economy and political order, debt, Iran, North Korea? When they revoke the visas of 35,000 overseas students accused (mostly wrongly) of English test cheating – part of May’s Home Office legacy – or threaten to ramp up fees for EU students, don’t British ministers realise these valuable paying customers have choices too?

US or Australian universities aside, did you realise that it’s not Ireland which is set to become the EU’s English-language HQ after Brexit, but the bigger, richer, Netherlands? No, nor did I. But they almost all speak English and taught us banking in the 17th century and much else. Nowadays their universities teach in English too. Will someone tell Theresa?

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