Jeremy Corbyn is by instinct a long-time Eurosceptic, as he proved during the EU referendum campaign, when his masterly inactivity helped to decide the result. Had he put Labour’s back into campaigning for Remain, Britain might just have voted to Remain. Instead, he, Seumas Milne and others close to him used every bureaucratic trick in the book to go slow, to the mounting frustration of Alan Johnson and others in Labour In For Britain. After all, Corbyn hasn’t changed his mind on anything else much during the best part of half a century in the Commons: Hamas, the IRA, nuclear weapons, Hezbollah. Why should he have done so over Brexit?
None the less, some Conservative Leavers have over-estimated his dedication to the cause. As that referendum campaign reminded us all – and him – Labour has been a Remain party since the era of Jacques Delors. Its membership base in pro-EU London is strongly pro-staying. Many of the seats it holds elsewhere in England and Wales went for Leave, but the party has persuaded itself that most Labour voters within them are for EU membership and that, as a current saying has it, “Labour Remainers are more pro-Remain than they are pro-Labour, but Labour Leavers are more pro-Leave than they are pro-Labour”. We shall see.
At any rate, Brexit has come to be a monkey for Corbyn that he can’t get off his back. The division of Labour’s seats and the strategic problems it poses; the push for a second referendum; the drift to Remain of John McDonnell and the EU-enthusiasm of Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and Tom Watson – all these prevent him from clearing the decks to maunder on about “austerity”. The plain fact is that the Brexit saga is harming his party’s chances of gaining power – the quest that must always come first. Left to his own devices, he might tacitly have let Theresa May’s Brexit deal pass the Commons, in a bid to wriggle that monkey loose.
It is easy to mock the strategic tangle into which he has got himself over EU policy (and this site will make the most of the opportunity). The Conservatives are for Leave. The Liberal Democrats, for Remain. Labour’s policy, in so far as one can make it out as the party’s conference approaches, is to negotiate a Labour Brexit…and then oppose it in a referendum, where the party will back staying. That at least is the position of Thornberry, Starmer, Diane Abbott and Watson, the last of whom now wants a second referendum before a general election. If the EU watches the Tory approach to Brexit with bewilderment, it views Labour’s with something nearer despair.
For all the absurdity of the party’s position and the bleakness of its poll ratings, Corbyn’s latest adaptation to the policy makes a weird kind of sense – and there is a solid Labour precedent for it. He now suggests that he will float above the fray in the second referendum he so distrusts: “I will pledge to carry out whatever the people decide, as a Labour Prime Minister,” he says. Unlike David Cameron, therefore, he would be not so much an actor as a spectator. The latter’s referendum engagement helped to bring about his downfall, as the former Prime Minister’s memoirs remind us.
Corbyn’s latest shift sounds more like the referendum detachment of Harold Wilson – who, though himself for staying in the Common Market, kept his distance from the campaign to stay in it during 1975. Doing so contributed to the eventual emergence of the SDP. However, Wilson was a master of handling his own party, and used that first referendum successfully to that end; Cameron failed to do the same over 30 years later. We suspect that Wilson is not at the top of the list of Corbyn’s role models. None the less, he is learning from him, or seems to be. Here comes Harold Corbyn.