Euan McColm: Why Corbyn’s plan to bounce Boris came to grief

The Remainer heart, sunk by the misery of Brexit, says “Yes”. It might not be a perfect solution but it’s something and, good God, don’t we need something, now?

A general election called by Prime Minister Corbyn would return a House of Commons even further to the right. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal that rival politicians should join him in a bid to bring down Prime Minister Boris Johnson and then replace the Conservative administration with a government of national unity looks, at first glance, like a viable alternative to the no-deal Brexit towards which the United Kingdom is now hurtling.

Once this wheeze had been enacted, Prime Minister Corbyn would do two things: he’d secure a delay to the UK’s departure from the EU and then call a general election. Labour would campaign for a second referendum, including the option to Remain.

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But desperation clouds the judgment, does it not? What might seem an imperfect but workable solution to the crisis in which the UK now finds itself is, I’m afraid, anything but.

So divided is the nation over the decision, taken by voters in the 2016 referendum, to leave the EU that an administration cobbled together by Labour, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and various Europhile Tories would have no more claim to be a government of national unity than the one currently led by Johnson. Even the most ardent Remainer must see this, surely?

Corbyn’s proposal is already in tatters, anyway, thanks to the Lib Dems. The Labour leader will be pleased by this outcome.

Not unreasonably, Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson reacted to Corbyn’s suggestion of a coalition to thwart No Deal by pointing out that he is not likely to be able to command the support of a majority of MPs. There are, she said, Labour MPs who would struggle to back their leader to become prime minister.

The Green MP Caroline Lucas and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon were among those who seized the opportunity to attack Swinson for her position. At this point it was abundantly clear precisely what was going on.

The Lib Dem have been enjoying something of a revival in their fortunes of late. Coalition with the Conservatives between 2010-15 might have looked as if it had finished off the party but its clear and unwavering opposition to Brexit has made it an attractive proposition for voters who despair at the result of the 2016 referendum.

This Lib Dem revival stands to hurt Corbyn’s Labour Party which has – until the leader’s sudden burst of energy last week – been pitifully weak on the subject of the UK’s departure from the EU.

Corbyn, a prominent Eurosceptic for most of his parliamentary career, has hummed and hawed over the question of a second referendum, even as members of his party urge him to do whatever is necessary to stop Brexit in its tracks.

Corbyn has tried – and failed – to ride both the horses of Remain and Leave since 2016. The pitiful spin goes that the Labour leader’s aim was to reunite a nation torn apart by Brexit. The truth was that he was perfectly satisfied with the result of the EU referendum.

But the Corbyn “strategy” has created a space for the Lib Dems. Just as the Scottish Tories established themselves as the party of the Union after the 2014 independence referendum, so the Lib Dems have become the party of Europe since 2016.

This truth is behind Corbyn’s proposal to establish a government of national unity. Of course, Swinson was going to have to reject the idea that she might play a part in making Corbyn prime minister. And, of course, Labour was then going to use her response to allege that 1) she isn’t really serious about stopping a no-deal Brexit, and 2) she is perfectly happy to prop up Johnson’s premiership.

Corbyn’s plan was an unavoidable elephant trap. Sturgeon’s reaction to Swinson’s refusal to countenance a Corbyn premiership was as cynical as the Labour leader’s call for unity. The nationalists have been consistent in their opposition to Brexit but for Scots who oppose both independence and Brexit, the Lib Dems look like a reasonable option.

Sturgeon, then, has nothing to lose – and, possibly, something to gain – from painting Swinson as a Boris Johnson enabler. This sort of thing may be useful in, say, a by-election such as the one forthcoming in Shetland, where the Lib Dems face a strong challenge from the SNP.

There is, of course, another reason that Sturgeon would be happy to see Corbyn in 10 Downing Street.

The Labour leader has recently said that he believes it should not be the place of the UK government to stand in the way of a second independence referendum. If the SNP was to play a part in installing him as PM, the First Minister’s price would surely be agreement to another independence referendum at a time of her choosing.

Swinson may be opposed to a Corbyn premiership but she is not opposed to trying to bring down Johnson. Her suggestion that either the father or mother of the house – Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman – could fill the role of caretaker PM is surely reasonable.

The truth, I’m afraid, is that a government of national unity is simply not a goer. An attempt by Remainer MPs to force another election would unleash a furious response among the Leave voting majority of voters. It would confirm their belief that an elite is working against them and they would punish them accordingly. The next house of Commons would, I believe, be a far more right-wing place.

If Corbyn had ever cared about the consequences of Brexit, he’d have campaigned hard for a Remain vote in 2016 rather than sitting on his hands, he’d have come out fighting for a second referendum at the first whiff of impropriety from the winning campaign, and he’d have remained open-minded about who might lead a temporary government in the event that Boris Johnson was toppled.

Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t care about protecting the vulnerable from Brexit. He cares only about preserving his own failing leadership.