At the start of this week, Jeremy Corbyn was sent to Coventry. Literally. The Labour leader has garnered the wrath of many in his party over his rather casual approach to Brexit.
One highly ardent anti-Brexit Labour backbencher complained bitterly to me “It’s like he doesn’t give a **** about Brexit.” And I was like “Err. Doh. He doesn’t. He never really has.”
While every other leading politician in the land is tearing their hair out over Brexit, either screaming about betrayal or sobbing about the end of the world, Comrade Corbyn is whistling all the way to the allotment. He’s hit his political sweet spot. He’s the only politician in the country who can genuinely face both ways on Brexit. Yes, I realise that Boris was ready to swing either way but I’m afraid he is now forever linked with the “£350m a week for the NHS” blunder bus. Theresa May was clearly a Remainer, although she seemed to go into a witness protection scheme the second the EU referendum was called – a bit like she did when she called her own snap general election.
Corbyn is the only person who can stand up and say “I respect the result” and genuinely mean it as he probably would have been punching the air when that Sunderland result came in, but he can also say “I’m going to cause trouble” and mean it as it keeps his party faithful onside and, of course, he wants to make life as difficult as possible for the Tories.
That’s why he made his big announcement in Coventry, that Labour wants Britain to be in a permanent customs union with the EU after we leave, so there would be no tariffs with Europe and no need for a hard border in Northern Ireland. May is committed to leaving the EU customs union, so this is a point of clear and important difference between Labour and the Conservatives. Both parties say they back Britain leaving the Single Market although Corbyn has said that he wants a “close relationship” with it and Labour is undecided on what changes to freedom of movement they would support if indeed any.
While no one normal at the mythical water cooler is going “ooh, did you hear what that Jeremy Corbyn said about customs union?”, the bigger politics of the announcement is significant on a number of levels and it shows you that whether you love or loathe Team Corbyn, they’re getting pretty good at this grubby business they call politics.
It sends an important signal to those who voted remain around the country that Labour is up for a softer Brexit and wants to stay close to the EU, which is absolutely critical for them in the absence of a reversal of the whole thing.
It throws a significant chunk of red (but vegan-friendly) meat to the vast number of Labour party members who want a soft Brexit or none at all, and it calms things down internally for team Corbyn after a difficult week which saw the removal of the General Secretary Iain McNicol, provoking the ire of many of Corbyn’s critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party and beyond.
Most of Corbyn’s harshest critics who were MPs have now either left politics or have generally been silenced after his second leadership victory and a much better than expected performance at the last general election. Any public bitching or whingeing about Corbyn is now left to outriders on the fringes of the party, rather than actual MPs who are nervous about increased numbers of local Corbynista members and the threat of deselections. But Brexit has given those MPs a serious issue on which to legitimately campaign and take a different position from Corbyn because they love the European Union. Europe was an issue he was always independent on and it’s become a matter of individual conscience rather than the party whip; even most of Corbyn’s biggest fans are deeply anti-Brexit.
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Labour MPs like Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie and Heidi Alexander regularly tour the television and radio studios making the case for a soft Brexit and their arguments have been gaining traction. So, Monday’s big public concession to them on a customs unions is a sensible political management device and sends a signal to the right of the party that Corbyn can be reasonable. It makes it harder for them to criticise him.
There are important local elections coming up in England particularly in metropolitian areas, including London, and team Corbyn would be mad to go into those elections without a clear signal that they support a softer Brexit. Labour is on track for a massive victory in London and Corbyn needs to get a good result across the board to keep up the momentum from the general election and give his “I’m on the march to Downing Street” narrative a much-needed boost.
Whether this soft Brexit position will help Labour when the general election happens is another question. In traditional working class Labour seats which voted to leave, there could be an anger which translates into a swing to the Tories – but time will tell. There may be a political calculation by Labour that voters will think that Brexit has already happened (many already do) and that big domestic issues like the NHS and local services will be more important – although it is likely that immigration would be a big issue in those seats. And many people who support Corbyn but voted Leave are bitterly disappointed by his announcement including his mate, the veteran Labour MP Frank Field. Voters in Scotland may also feel that Labour wasn’t tough enough on opposing Brexit and give their support to Sturgeon who has been a consistent critic of Brexit.
Another strategic reason for the announcement was that business really likes it. We are now in a strange world where the CBI – the guardians of big business and the people who would usually slag off Corbyn as being the most dangerous threat to the economy since Black Wednesday – think Monday’s announcement was eminently sensible. This is a big deal because historically the CBI would always align with the Conservatives over big economic policy decisions. It is almost unbelievable to see Liam Fox attacking business – normally the allies of the Conservatives – for supporting Corbyn.
But the most important reason is pure, raw politics. Corbyn wants to be Prime Minister and his number one mission in life right now is to cause May as much grief as possible. If there was a vote on staying in the customs union in parliament, and Corbyn could persuade Tory rebels who support his position to vote against their own Prime Minister and defeat her on such an important issue, anything could happen. The Tories are a tinder box right now and if May lost such a vital vote, all bets would be off and Tories could find themselves in the middle of a leadership contest again.
So, what may have been a boring speech in Coventry may have profound political consequences. And if there’s yet another snap general election, I think Brenda from Bristol will once again speak for a nation – you’re joking!