Prime Minister has offered opposition party a chance of survival by triggering leader’s exit, says Euan McColm
You’ll know the scene, perhaps, from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. A line of men queues to be crucified. A jocular Roman official - ”Crucifixion? Good. Out of the door, line on the left, one cross each. Next!” - ticks the condemned men off a list as they banter their way along to certain death.
One man claims that he’s been told he can go free. The gullible official wishes him well before the prisoner laughs - he was only pulling his leg. It’s crucifixion for him, too.
And off he goes, smiling, to his doom.
Later today, Labour MPs will vote in favour of Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposal that a general election should be held on Thursday, 8 June. And while some might fix their grins for the cameras and talk of the appetite for the battle ahead and their confidence of victory, many of those voting for an election will do so in the certain knowledge that, on 9 June, they will no longer be Members of Parliament.
Mrs May’s announcement yesterday was welcomed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as a chance for the British people to vote for a Government that would put the interests of the majority first.
Labour would, continued Mr Corbyn, offer the country an effective alternative to a failed Government.
Defiantly optimistic in the face of polling that suggests his party faces a rout under his leadership, Mr Corbyn said Labour looked forward to showing how it would stand up for the people of Britain.
A recent poll for YouGov - giving the Tories a 21-point lead over Labour - suggests that a great many of the people of Britain have already decided that if there is standing up for them to be done, Mr Corbyn shouldn’t be the stander upper.
But although Labour faces it’s worst election defeat in decades, the Prime Minister may have given the party a lifeline.
Scotland, now divided along pro and anti independence lines has already shown what happens when a nation is invited to participate in a referendum on a subject which is inextricably bound up with identity. We don’t really talk about left and right in Scotland, these days, but of nationalist and unionist. The results of elections to Holyrood and Westminster in the wake of 2014’s independence referendum confirmed that Scotland consists of two tribes, divided by the constitution.
We can reasonably expect that the General Election with see a similar phenomenon, but this time focused on the issue of membership of the European Union.
The Prime Minister has called this election because she wants to strengthen her parliamentary hand as she proceeds with negotiations for the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU.
If this election is about Brexit for the PM, why won’t it also be so for voters?
Under Mr Corbyn’s incompetent leadership, Labour’s position on Brexit has been muddy and indecisive. Opposition frontbenchers explaining that, while they believe Brexit will be catastrophic for the country, they will be voting in favour of it is a grimly compelling spectator sport.
In the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, Labour incorrectly calculated that it could win back supporters who had voted Yes - and subsequently lined up behind the SNP - by spinning that the party might, conceivably, support independence in the future. Senior figures, from leader Kezia Dugdale down, tried to ride two horses on the constitutional question and came tumbling off as Conservative leader Ruth Davidson whizzed past on the inside by standing unequivocally against a second independence referendum.
After the EU referendum, Labour should have staked its claim to be the party of the 48 per cent who voted to remain in Europe. Instead, by reaching out to Leavers who view Labour with contempt, the party has shown itself to be pitifully weak on the central issue of the day.
Those Labour MPs left standing will return to a House of Commons where debate is dominated by Brexit. Mrs May will use her predicted increased majority to push through measures to which almost half of voters are opposed.
At this point, from the opposition must come a strong voice against Brexit. Just as the independence referendum changed Scotland, politically, so the EU referendum will lead to a realignment of debate.
Surely even Mr Corbyn’s staunchest supporters will baulk at the prospect of arguing, after his electoral humiliation in June, that he should remain in post.
When the inevitable comes and Mr Corbyn quits, Labour’s decision on who it elects to replace him may be a matter of life or death for the party.
If Labour continues to be weak on Brexit, the legitimate question of what purpose the official opposition actually serves will remain.
On the other hand, if Labour strengthens its opposition to Brexit under a new leader, there is some chance that those voters who voted to Remain last year will see something to rally behind.
Even if a candidate could be found, reshaping the party would not be easy.
Mr Corbyn has brought with him an influx of idealistic new members whose quest for a socialist utopia ignores the realities of life for most voters. Once Mr Corbyn is gone, the new leader must get rid of the assorted Trots ad Stalinists who’ve joined the party.
The general election will be agonisingly painful for Labour but crushing defeat might just provide a glimmer of hope for a party currently on its deathbed.