Euan McColm: Biggest obstacle to thwarting Johnson is Corbyn himself

Labour’s bid to paint the Lib Dem leader as the villain of the piece is as preposterous as it is desperate, writes Euan McColm

Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges the cheers of Labour party members. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty
Jeremy Corbyn acknowledges the cheers of Labour party members. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty

What’s a bit of anti-Semitism between friends? I mean, in the scheme of things, can’t we just ignore that sort of thing?

And while we’re about it, can’t we see past support for terrorists? In the national interest, surely that’s something we can overlook.

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The most important thing, after all, is that those who fear the consequences of a no-deal Brexit unite to see that it doesn’t happen. And if that means installing Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street as a caretaker prime minister, then who could stand in the way of that procedure? Only a monster could.

This week, in the hysterical tragicomedy of Brexit, Labour has decided Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson is that monster. Her refusal to countenance a Corbyn premiership proves as much. You might think that the real villains of the piece are those in power, but Labour knows better.

Swinson – who has committed her party to cancelling Brexit in the unlikely event that she becomes prime minister before it happens – believes that opposition parties in the House of Commons should unite to remove Boris Johnson as PM and replace him, temporarily, with someone else who would see to it that the United Kingdom doesn’t leave the European Union on 31 October without a deal before then calling a general election.

Happily, for those who reckon a no-deal Brexit would be a catastrophic mistake, other opposition leaders agree.

After Johnson chucked 21 MPs out of the Westminster Tory group, he is supremely vulnerable to such an attack. It is not a case of whether he can be turfed out by his opponents but of whether they have the courage to do it.

But while Labour reckons the caretaker PM must be Corbyn, Swinson believes it should be someone else, someone who would be acceptable to the broadest rage of opposition politicians.

Now, if Swinson were proposing that she should be the one to replace Johnson, then Labour might have grounds to attack her. But she’s not doing that. What she is doing is engaging with reality. Among those who would require to support a Corbyn premiership are MPs who have left the Labour Party because of the poison of anti-Semitism that has infected it under his leadership.

Corbyn would also need the backing of MPs, stripped of the Tory whip, who recall, vividly, both the IRA’s bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the 1984 Conservative Party conference and the Labour leader’s past associations with Irish republican terrorists.

Swinson is not the barrier to Corbyn becoming a caretaker prime minister, Corbyn is. Even the slowest-witted in the Labour shadow cabinet – even justice spokesman Richard Burgon – must see that.

And so it seems to me that the attacks on Swinson over recent days are not about her enabling the premiership of Johnson. Instead, they are rooted in the fact that the Lib Dems are now nipping at Labour’s heels in the polls.

The truth remains that, for all Labour’s talk about wishing to prevent the Prime Minister leading the UK out of the EU without a deal, Corbyn is a Eurosceptic who has blocked efforts by colleagues to have Labour adopt a strong Remain position. If Johnson has his way, Corbyn will wail in public but, away from the TV cameras, he’ll be perfectly happy. He’ll have got what he wanted.

Labour MPs who don’t share their leader’s desire for the UK to leave the EU must surely know that Corbyn is not the politician to take temporary control of government. And it is not just his Euroscepticism that makes him the wrong candidate.

If opposition politicians are to agree on a candidate for this role, a degree of selflessness is required. There must be compromise, a willingness to put country before party.

This being so, nobody who wishes to become prime minister through the conventional route of winning a general election should be in the running.

Swinson and others from across the opposition spectrum have made it known that they would be willing to back a senior MP from one of the main parties for the role. Grandees such as the Conservative Ken Clarke and the experienced Labour member, Harriet Harman – respectively the father and mother of the House of Commons – are among those who have been mooted as possible temporary incumbents of Downing Street.

Of course, there are some who believe this is all academic now, anyway. Action in both parliament and the courts by opposition politicians and campaigners would appear to have boxed the Prime Minister in. Under legislation passed by MPs, Johnson is required to ask the EU for an extension to the UK’s departure date if he his unable to secure a deal, while the government has also made a commitment to the courts that it will not attempt to ignore this legal responsibility.

Cynics may, I think, be excused for harbouring concerns about the sincerity of this pledge. Whenever he is asked about the matter, Johnson remains adamant that the UK will leave the European bloc on 31 October, deal or no deal.

Anti-EU ideologues within the Tory group at Westminster are similarly certain that this will be the case. They might, as excruciating TV appearance after excruciating TV appearance has evinced, be light on the detail of how the PM might keep his promise to Leavers without breaking the law of the land, but their faith in him remains resolute.

Johnson’s track record of dishonesty means opponents are wise to be concerned about whether he will try to get round his obligation to request an extension from the EU. They are wise to think that the best way to prevent him trying to game the situation to his advantage is to replace him as Prime Minister, thus guaranteeing that the law is followed to the letter.

If Labour MPs are serious about stopping Johnson from dragging the UK out of the EU without a deal, they should stop their attacks on Swinson and, instead, start working with fellow opposition members to find a candidate on whom they can all agree.