MICHAEL WHITE: Corbyn’s Labour may yet grind out victory against the Tories

Prime minister Theresa May dances as she arrives on stage to make her speech at the Conservative Party annual conference at t...

Prime minister Theresa May dances as she arrives on stage to make her speech at the Conservative Party annual conference at the International Convention Centre, Birmingham Photo: PA / Victoria Jones - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

MICHAEL WHITE on the wheat and the chaff.

When the Conservative party organisers made that hash of the privacy settings on their Birmingham conference app (so that Philip Hammond's mugshot was promptly tweaked to Eeyore's), I finally wondered if the oldest political party in the world will have any post-Brexit energy left to resist Team Corbyn's digitally-savvy challenge at the next general election.

That's a major concession from me. So is the grudging admission that the Corbynites might actually win, despite their proletarian triumphalism in – where else? – Liverpool. So many Tory MPs and activists seem hell-bent on what Henry Kissinger used to call mutually assured destruction (MAD) that they may stumble into the 2019 election none of them say they want before 2022.

Or has shameless Boris Johnson misjudged his party, despite the show-stealing razzmatazz surrounding his arrival in Brum and his rabble-rousing speech to a packed fringe meeting? A friend reports that the conference was actually less daggers-drawn this year, many pragmatic activists all too aware that capitalism is working badly for many Britons – and that their task is to moderate it, not let it rip as Brexit fundamentalists want – or hand it to John McDonnell. Interesting that the post-Dacre Daily Mail was highly-critical of Boris's crowd-pleasing disloyalty on Wednesday.

At the weekend Johnson had set out his Brexit stall – at 4,714 words, it was four times longer than his usual column. Mostly platitudinous guff extolling Canada+, it was enough to provoke Jeremy ('Let's stay competitive') Hunt to compare the EU's 'prison' style of negotiating strategy with the Soviet Union, this on a Telegraph front page next to a Ryder Cup victory photo captioned ' Europe united in joy.'


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Hunt's badly misjudged tough guy talk (macho isn't really you, Jeremy) earned him a ticking off from horrified diplomats and sorrowful shakes of the head among EU Brexit negotiators. It was especially heartfelt among East European whose experience of Soviet prisons is not a figure of speech, but a living reality for many – the 'ruined lives' of three generations, as Latvia's ambassador painfully put it. That was an unforced error.

At least Hammond still thinks and talks like a grown up. He's doggedly dull and uninspiring ('deal dividend' is hardly catchy), but we know he won't bankrupt us by lunchtime by building a bridge between Liverpool and Limerick. He listens to the CBI and doesn't say 'F**k business' by way of banter. What's more, provoked beyond endurance, the Eeyore worm finally turned this week and took the mickey out of Blustering Boris. About time too.

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In an interview with the newly-more-moderate Daily Mail, the chancellor treated himself to explaining the obvious. Boris is a big picture man, who trades on personality without much to show for it, he condescended to observe. ' Boris is a wonderful character, but he's never been a details man. I've had many discussion with him on Brexit.'

Go on, Phil, put the boot in to the Poundland Winston Churchill. You know you want to. OK, if you insist, Mike.

Discussing Canada+, ostensibly the subject of BJ's 4,714 word opus, Hammond apparently adopted a faux-Etonian manner, 'Boris sits there and, at the end of it, he says 'Yeah, but, er, there must be a way, I mean, if you just, if you erm, come on Phil, we can do it, I know we can get there'.'

Spot on, Phil, that's exactly how the portly plotter talks in public, in private and in print. He just thinks we should all wish a bit harder, whistle louder, dreams up a new distracting joke when there's any risk he might be called on to do detail. Johnson did it again on Monday when found a not-exactly-wheat field to run through – mocking Theresa May's naughtiest childhood moment – for the cameras. It's funny, but it's not policy. Lacklustre as ever, May at least kept her cool – and dignity.

Hammond and May's assaults ought to be enough to finish the cad – yet again – but it won't. If Donald Trump can survive his appallingly ignorant and egotistical anti-global rant at the UN – and everything he's done since – a smalltown rogue like Johnson can get away with it among the fans. He does even when polls suggest as leader he would lose to Jeremy Corbyn in what would be a very leader-lite election.

Talking of whom, I wasn't much impressed by what I saw and read of Labour's own conference week in Liverpool either. Nor by much of its Mersey carnival tone, though I know it is mean to rain on other people's parade when they're obviously having such a good time, necking the Kool Aid and telling each other how brilliant they all are.

The pollsters reports told a more guarded story, the Tories up to 6% ahead again in some versions (cries of 'fake news'). But that was before Johnson donned his white bandana and dive-bombed the Birmingham Conference Centre – 'Bora, Bora, Bora' – bailing out (as usual) only at the last minute. There will be no leadership challenge before Brexit.

But there's no denying that Corbyn delivered a more relaxed and accomplished version of the leader's speech than most of us have seen him do before, replete with attractive literary references. Shelley, eh! When was he last name-checked at conference? Jez seems comfortable in his skin, as well he might now that his faction has near total control of the party machine and no intention of loosening its grip. More of that later.

As is the case every week, The New European's primary question remains: are we any wiser about the Brexit process, which way the negotiations are currently heading and whether or not parliament, the country and the EU27 – let's not forget them – are more or less likely to seal a half-viable deal than they were immediately after the diplomatic car crash in Salzburg?

A little perhaps. May has made it plain all week that she is sticking by her 'no mates' Chequers plan. Hammond and most of the cabinet is sticking, more-or-less, by her. Insiders seem to expect the PM to show greater flexibility after she is safely through her conference ordeal and hope Berlin and Paris do likewise.

On Tuesday morning, May's ministers were promoting the cabinet's new (two years late?) global immigration rules, skills-orientated (£50,000 plus jobs) and ostensibly treating EU citizens like everyone else. Care homes, retailers, hospitality and fruit pickers won't like the sound of that, even though May made it sound quite porous in her Radio 4 Today interview.

But the Times had other plans for the news agenda. The paper came up with a premature version of May's planned 'grand bargain' concession. It would keep the entire UK tied to major aspects of the EU customs union for goods, curbing its ability to strike free trade agreements (FTAs) elsewhere until after an Irish border deal.

If true – the Times account was immediately downplayed – that would suggest a far naughtier May than running through a wheat field. Even 'no details' Boris would spot the problem. It still smacks of magical thinking as Michel Barnier's clock ticks, though Lord Digby Jones (ex-CBI and trade minister) has a point when he says up to 150,000 German car jobs may be at risk from a breakdown. Angela Merkel's grip may be fading faster than May's. The prime minister has actually been sounding more assured lately. Through the pain barrier, perhaps. Assuming – big if – the PM gets a mutation of Chequers, closer to Canada than to Norway, so I imagine, it's make your mind up time. Corbyn's offer in Liverpool to back her if the package meets Keir Starmer's six tests was as sincere as his warm words for his long-suffering Brexit spokesman – that is to say, insincere. But the tests are pretty insincere too, designed to be failed.

Starmer's six tests would make a good pub quiz. Who knows them? I had to look them up. Does the deal sustain strong, close ties with the EU; provide the 'exact same benefits' as current single market/customs union; offer fair management of migration; avoid Singapore-style deregulation; protect national security/ crime interests; be fair to all UK regions? Mother Theresa couldn't deliver that shopping list, let alone Theresa May.

So Corbyn/Loyalist Labour will vote against, hoping to engineer an election it just might win. But the votes of dissident Labour MPs, unpersuaded by Corbyn's talk in Liverpool of 'the new common sense' and the 'new majority,' remain in play along with Tories, Lib Dems and assorted nationalists from whom a majority would have to be welded.

On the spot would be pro-EU Labour MPs, ever mindful of the 69 colleagues whom Roy Jenkins led against their own party in 1972 to deliver the Commons majority for Common Market membership. But not just them. Different slices of the parliamentary pie all want different things. But this would be a choice between greater and lesser evils.

Does the DUP really want Britain to crash out on March 29 with no deal, straight over Lord Lawson's non-existent cliff, potentially taking a sizeable chunk of our – and its own – economic future with it? Would it prefer a postponement of the Article 50 timetable, a new Tory leader ('come on Phil, we can do it') and another try? Would it want to risk helping to trigger a general election that would almost certainly destroy its temporary influence over No.10 – and might produce a left-wing government full of Sinn Fein sympathisers and worse? Remember, Northern Ireland voted Remain, even if Arlene Foster didn't. Better perhaps unheroically to 'abstain in person', as a Northern Irish Nationalist MP did when faced with another tough choice: the no confidence vote that brought down Labour in 1979. The outcome would eventually pit the implacable Margaret Thatcher against the IRA. In 2018, similar fine calculations of principle and self-interest will affect all the others with consequences impossible to predict. The Tories are currently split three ways: May loyalists for some mutation of Chequers, Nicky Morgan's insistence that a cross-party Commons majority exists – wrongly in my view – for the cosy Norway model (single market, rule-taking, free movement and all), and the Boris Duncan-Mogg camp: Canada+ or a no-deal Brexit. Despite the endless huffing and puffing, all those factions, and the SNP bloc too, would have to decide if they are sufficiently confident of the righteousness of their own position to risk bringing down the May government and having to vote for a 'who governs Britain?' election that might lead to Corbyn getting the opportunity he claims to want, to take over the Brexit negotiations.

Or do they belatedly realise that Tony Blair and Nick Clegg, Chuka Umunna and Sir John Major – yesterday's men at best – were right all along to demand a People's Vote to resolve the impasse in parliament? This time it would be based on 'facts, not fantasy' as Major put it in David Miliband's old South Shields (and Brexit) constituency the other day.

New adherents join the People's Vote banner most days. Polls suggest they do not add up to a decisive shift among voters and Labour's half-hearted endorsement of the option chiefly served as a sticking plaster to sustain the wafer-thin illusion of a 'united party'. But no one appears keen to offer despairing Remain and agnostic voters a road map to show how this might be brought about.

A second referendum would require legislation, hardly possible between now and March 29, unless all sides agree. Since we are all sadly wiser than in June 2016 the ballot paper would surely have to offer three options, as Scotland's independence referendum in 2014 did not, by excluding 'devo max'. The omission looked a mistake at the time, pushing some voters into the indy camp, less so from 2018. But Brexit and Scexit are both long, strategic judgements, their consequences decades in the making.

So voters would have to be offered an explicit hard Brexit. It's what hard Brexiteers (but no-one else) claim the 51.9% voted for in 2016, but this time with the details fleshed out: no single market or customs union, WTO terms. Against it would be May's deal – if she gets one – a Chequers/Norway/Canada+ version of soft Brexit; and Keir Starmer's Remain option – the status quo before Article 50, if we can get it – would be the third. Since that invites a three-way split there would have to be a second preference mechanism to provide some sort of majority. The more I think about it, the less it sounds like practical politics that would resolve a divisive issue and start the process of binding up the nation's wounds.

There is a further option for those Tories whose adherence to traditional conservative values are becoming frayed in the bombastic, populist age of angry Trumpismo and the cry 'Betrayal'. Among activists, a hard core of MPs and media acolytes there is a readiness to use words like 'traitor' and 'enemies of the people' that were unthinkable even on John Major's worst days. There is no British senator John McCain in view with the moral authority to reproach them.

Labour has a comparable problem with its own angry, panacea pedlars, puffed up with their own certainties and scorn for opposing views, especially Labour ones. A friend who attended Momentum's parallel World Transformed conference in Liverpool marvelled at the enthusiasm and vitality of young supporters. They deserve better than bearded old class warriors like Jon Lansman lecturing them on past struggles, he thought. Lansman was interesting because he didn't talk about policy or how to beat the Tories; his focus was on keeping control of the party. Back in 1981 when the eternal student was 24 and a Tony Benn advisor, Lansman said he sensed the tide had turned when Benn narrowly lost his deputy leadership challenge to Denis Healey, Michael Foot's number two. Launched at 3am, against the advice of most left-wing MPs, Benn's challenge and defeat started Labour's march back to power in 1997. That was Lansman's point. The brief Bennite hegemony had allowed the left to insert enough barriers to a right wing resurgence that it took them 15 years to regain control. Next time we must make it 30 years, he said. That must sound quite a lot to Generation X listeners in the crowd.

Unlike Lansman, John McDonnell is serious about power. He senses a revolutionary opportunity. Given the dismal state of the Tories he might be right. Philip Hammond's uninspiring, steady-as-she-goes speech on Monday does not impress Tory activists who want to follow Trump by slashing taxes and regulation, then hoping for the best. Bold if vague radicalism to match McDonnell's Liverpool speech is the best way to see off Corbyn: 'Come on Boris, we can do it', the activists cry – not Festivals of Brexit or slightly higher speed limits. 'Let's have a real Tory in charge.' What if some Tory radicals see an opportunity in helping engineer a brief, disastrous period of Corbyn-McDonnell government as a means of clearing the decks and preparing the voters for the free market nirvana they have in mind? 'Revolutionary defeatism', is the left-wing label for such a strategy: let the other side make things so bad that we get our opportunity afterwards.

It goes without saying they think Labour in office would fail to deliver a Brexit that would satisfy their supporters. You do not have to be a very conservative economist to suspect that McDonnell's economic strategy – especially when combined with Corbyn's blithe promises of free everything – would quickly produce an economic crisis.

Higher personal and corporate taxes, levied mostly on individuals and companies with options to leave, would likely prove counter-productive. Combined with a Brexit-weakened pound, the vastly increased scale of borrowing would soon prove impossibly expensive to sustain. The promised expropriation of 10% of larger companies and of privatised industry assets – water and rail – at below market value, wouldn't help. The list hanging on the magic money tree is long.

All this plus the challenges of Brexit with barely a nod to the wider world or the AI revolution with its power to transform lives and work for better or worse. Yet friends of yours and mine, some of them the same people who left Labour for Roy Jenkins's SDP in 1982, signed up for Corbynism in Liverpool – just as others their own age are switching on their hearing aids and cheering Boris in Birmingham. The innocent over-confidence of the young is one thing, but the recklessness of the old is much scarier.

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