General election: Why Jeremy Corbyn is just like Tommy Cooper – John McLellan

Labour has haemorrhaged support to the SNP amid uncertainty over its stance on the big two constitutional questions, Brexit and independence, writes John McLellan.

Jeremy Corbyn campaigns in Linlithgow, wearing a cap rather than a fez (Picture: David Cheskin/Getty Images)

Like a Shakespearean tragedy, every council by-election is a scene in the descent of the once all-powerful Scottish Labour Party into irrelevance and this week there were two more miserable performances in what used to be its Fife bastion.

In Rosyth, it finished a distant third with only 15 per cent of the vote and in Dunfermline Central a woeful fourth, with a collapse of six points to just 13 per cent. The only succour for Ian Murray, campaigning to hang onto his Edinburgh South seat on a pro-EU and UK ticket, is that the more useless his party appears the safer a bet he seems to anti-SNP tactical voters.

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For every headline-grabbing, money-burning Labour policy announcement, the reality is this general election in Scotland is being decided on the big two constitutional questions, and ahead of the by-elections Jeremy Corbyn lurched north for two disastrous days to push a European policy which is both pointless and dishonest and proved Labour is now relaxed about the Union as well.

Comedian Tommy Cooper was known for his spectacular table cloth trick (Picture: PA)

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Regular readers will know that as a Conservative councillor and former adviser to Ruth Davidson, I can’t be considered an unbiased narrator, but both sides of the European and Union argument must surely see just how contorted and tricksy Mr Corbyn has become.

On the Union, Mr Corbyn knows his party has haemorrhaged what it would regard as traditional working-class votes to the SNP and, in trying not to alienate them further, just ended up hopelessly confused about Labour’s position on a second independence referendum. For the same reason, he then denied he was a unionist and failed to confirm he would campaign for the Union in such a vote. The SNP won both Fife seats with increased vote share.

Similarly on Europe, Corbyn knows his party is being ripped apart by the pro-EU metropolitan faction led by Sir Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry, while trying to hold onto equally fervent anti-EU voters in the north represented by the likes of Blyth veteran Ronnie Campbell.

The result is a dishonest and patronising mess, dishonest most obviously because of his consistent opposition to the EU over many years, but it’s the detail which stretches credibility beyond breaking point. Does anyone genuinely believe Europe would enter a third renegotiation with a Government if it was going to campaign against whatever deal is agreed? And even if it was possible, why waste effort on something designed to fail anyway?

To say they would stage a referendum with a choice of Remain or some sort of deal which Europe won’t negotiate leads to the inevitable conclusion that Labour is a Remain party which would put the country through more months of uncertainty, and another vote, simply because it is not honest enough to admit as much to core voters in key northern seats.

Mr Corbyn is the Tommy Cooper of politics; his ‘I’m not a unionist, I’m a socialist’ and ‘I’m a Remainer who hates the EU’ routine is the political equivalent of attempting to pull off a spectacular table cloth trick which sends the crockery flying across the stage. Except Tommy Cooper was playing it for laughs.

All Mr Corbyn needs is the Fez and he would be just as funny, if there wasn’t a chance that he could actually make it into Number 10.

Yet this is what Ian Murray is expecting Edinburgh South voters to endorse, because whether tactical anti-SNP voters like it or not, their votes will help push Jeremy Corbyn one seat closer to Number 10. Next door in Edinburgh South West, Labour’s choice of a candidate, who only left the SNP because it wasn’t left-wing enough, even rules out tactical support. It’s like they want to lose.

Of course Conservative candidates know there is a fight for unionist support with the Lib Dems, and the Fife by-elections showed that with the Conservative vote share increasing splitting the vote just hands victory to the SNP.

But the Tory campaign in Edinburgh West received an unlikely boost from defending Lib Dem candidate Christine Jardine who helpfully declared that stopping Brexit was more important than the UK. For a supposed unionist to argue that – about a 400-year-old union worth four times as much in trade than the 40-year-old one – shows just how much Brexit has distorted some perceptions.

But Ms Jardine has a high profile, with a leading role in key Lib Dem policy areas like statutory Press regulation, so she cannot be dismissed as an out-rider. She has shown that for the strongest defence of the United Kingdom there can only be one choice in Scotland and it isn’t the Lib Dems.

The Great Princes Street Gardens Mystery keeps readers gripped

What could be nicer to get away from all the general election brouhaha than some good old traditional Edinburgh bratwurst and gluhwein at Edinbrgh’s Winter Festival? Maybe it will be too sharp a reminder for Remainers of the impending departure from the EU, but at least the Great Princes Street Gardens mystery provides a distraction from constitutional wrangling.

Like the best whodunits, it takes one twist after another, with the small but mighty Broughton Spurtle website revealing on Thursday that planning permission for the labyrinth now sprawling across the Waverley Valley expired in January 2018. Edinburgh’s Christmas promoter Underbelly subsequently confirmed that this was the case, so last year’s erection came and went without anyone noticing it was technically illegal.

But perhaps it was noticed, but just not flagged up, or perhaps it was flagged up but not acted upon? And if it was flagged up, to whom, and if no action was taken, who made the decision and for what reason?

Any planning permission for this year will be retrospective, but whatever is agreed will shape the event for the next two years. For now, the attractions should open today after city council building and safety officers went down to the wire to issue compliance certificates.

Underbelly insist they first raised the problems that construction work for the National Galleries would cause the Winter Festival as far back as 2014, and that they consistently reminded council officers that issues remained unsolved.

That they say they have acted properly at all times and have gone beyond their contractual obligations has ceased to be the point; what really matters now is that all businesses operating in Edinburgh understand the rules and the playing field the council maintains is demonstrably level.