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Small minds and Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn’s latest gambit

August 15th, 2019

His letter’s a strategic mistake

The real fight starts here. Jeremy Corbyn has written to other opposition party leaders suggesting that if he calls a vote of no confidence in the government, he stands ready to lead a temporary government to obtain an extension to the Article 50 notice and then call a general election.

Perplexingly, this ecumenical offer has met with a cool reception. The Lib Dems have given him the thumbs down on the ground that he would lack the necessary support. The Greens are willing to vote for him but have asked him whether he would support someone else if he failed to gather the necessary support. The remnants of Change UK, who still comprise 5 MPs, have described this as a stunt (given they weren’t copied in on the letter, you can understand why they were miffed).

Jeremy Corbyn stakes his claim to lead such a government on the basis that he leads the second largest party in Parliament. It is his only claim to that role.  

He has shown all the leadership on Brexit of a damp dishcloth. He has dismayed his party with his reluctance to entertain the idea of revisiting the referendum result. The Labour leadership’s policy contortions have led them to the position that they would renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and put that to a referendum, while reserving the right to support or oppose it. The EU might see a negotiation where you are maintaining the right to oppose it in a referendum as bad faith, but that is evidently a secondary consideration to the perceived need to triangulate on Brexit.

He has already lost control of his Parliamentary party, especially on Brexit.  Tom Watson is already working with the Lib Dems. He no doubt does so with the backing of many of his fellow Labour MPs.

He is catastrophically unpopular with the public. If Boris Johnson wanted a poster child for the opponents of Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn would be that man.  Leavers are prepared to countenance the break-up of the union, the destruction of the Conservative party and the slaughter of the first-born in order to secure Brexit. The one thing they are not prepared to countenance is Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. He would be delighted to go into a general election after such a temporary coalition. His opponents would be shackling themselves to a corpse.

So even the most ardent Corbynite is going to struggle to keep a straight face when arguing that the only conceivable leader of a government to extend the Article 50 notice is Jeremy Corbyn.  

The whole debate is in any case misconceived. The small minds are discussing people. Let’s get back to the idea, which is what great minds should be discussing. The idea is to stop a no deal Brexit taking place without a mandate. If all those arguing are serious about stopping a no deal Brexit without mandate, the person to get the top job should be the person most capable of ensuring that.

If that is accepted, the question should then be who that person would be.  The reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s kite-flying has shown that it is not him.  

Jeremy Corbyn has made a strategic mistake writing his letter now. He must have been aware that he would struggle to put together a rainbow coalition behind him. He has made his gambit too early and as such he has made it too easy for others to move onto alternative candidates and ask Labour figures why they would be unable to support them. If he had written his letter on the return of Parliament, he may have been alternativeless.

So who might act as a suitable placeholder for temporary Prime Minister? The critical point to note is that if it is not going to be Jeremy Corbyn, any candidate who is going to succeed in commanding a majority in the House of Commons is going to have to be someone who is acceptable to him. He is going to have a lot of agency. We can immediately on that basis exclude Jo Swinson (a dangerous political rival) and any leading Labour figure who might eclipse him in the role. You can safely lay her on Betfair at anything like current prices.

The possibilities are therefore unthreatening leaders of minor parties or clapped-out grandees. Jeremy Corbyn has good relations with Caroline Lucas and there would be the collateral advantage that if the Greens did well it would be at least partly at the Lib Dems’ expense. You can back her at 66/1 with Ladbrokes for next Prime Minister (I previously backed her at 100/1).

You can get 200/1 on Liz Saville-Roberts, leader of Plaid Cymru at Westminster. Ladbrokes haven’t yet listed Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP at Westminster, but you might take a punt on either of these if you can at suitable odds – both might represent experienced politicians who seem lacking in danger for those they need to corral. The truly adventurous might consider Lady Sylvia Hermon at 200/1, who doesn’t even have a party. She is not, however, a fan of Jeremy Corbyn and since he is a man to bear grudges, this is one long shot bet I don’t fancy.

More likely, it is going to be a grandee. Jo Swinson suggested Ken Clarke, which is almost certainly the kiss of death for his chances.  I wouldn’t touch him at the current odds of 25/1 (and have laid him on Betfair). It’s hard to imagine Jeremy Corbyn supporting any Conservative.

So look to senior Labour figures.  Margaret Beckett or Ed Miliband (both so far unlisted by Ladbrokes, though you can back Margaret Beckett on Betfair at 55 at the time of writing) are both possibilities. Much will depend on personal affection, I suspect. Insiders are at a definite advantage here.

In truth, such a government remains unlikely. If it is going to happen, it needs Labour support and some flexibility from them. So plan your betting accordingly.

Alastair Meeks