Euan McColm: Chaos rules both Tories and Labour over Europe

John Redwood challenged John Major in 1995 after the party split over Europe, but failed to oust the PM. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
John Redwood challenged John Major in 1995 after the party split over Europe, but failed to oust the PM. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Corbyn should be scoring points against divided Tories on Europe, but is failing to land a blow, writes Euan McColm

The Conservative Party’s rancourous division over the matter of the UK’s membership of the ­European Union is absolute gold for those of us of a nostalgic ­disposition.

Not so very long ago, as Tony Blair was leading Labour towards the first of three consecutive general election victories, Europe was the issue guaranteed to cause Tory splits. Indeed, in 1995, prime minister John Major became so exasperated by the chaos being wrought by some of his eurosceptic MPs that he resigned from the Conservative leadership and invited those sniping from the shadows to “put up or shut up”.

In the event, the eurosceptics put up charmless oddball John Redwood (you might remember his campaign launch photo, where he appeared to be surrounded by the inhabitants of the attics of embarrassed aristocrats) and Mr Major comfortably won, enabling him to spend a further two years waiting to be defeated by Mr Blair.

David Cameron had the potentially damaging effect of the Tories’ troubled relationship with Europe in mind when, in 2013, he promised a referendum on membership. This would keep the eurosceptics happy and he’d worry about the vote when the time came for him to deliver.

UK voters will decide on 23 June whether or not we remain part of the EU. Mr Cameron – having won some concessions for the UK – will campaign to stay. Others in his party, including some significant figures, will fight for Brexit.

When Boris Johnson announced on Sunday that he would be campaigning for the UK to get out of the EU, it became clear just how fraught things are going to become within Tory ranks.

Mr Johnson, it has been remarked, has shown no previous appetite for such a step. Cynics have suggested that his decision was not based on principle but on the possibility that setting himself up as a great figurehead of the anti-European movement might help him win the Tory leadership in 2019 when Mr Cameron – who has previously stated that he won’t seek a third term in office – is expected to step down. Those cynics are, as far as I can see, correct.

What we have, then, is a Conservative Party in turmoil. The divisions that hammered John Major’s government in the 1990s have come roaring back.

Now, under normal circumstances, this would be the greatest of news for the opposition. A divided and, consequently, weakened Tory Party should provide a great opportunity for Labour.

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But with Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, we are not living through normal circumstances.

It’s striking, indeed, that no commentator, no Cabinet minister, and no credible Labour MP has suggested that Mr Corbyn might capitalise on the splits emerging in the Tory Party. But, then, in order for an opposition to make advances at the expense of the government, that opposition has to appear as if it might be a credible alternative. Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party doesn’t fit that particular bill.

On Monday, if one wanted to hear strong and compelling voices from Labour, one had to look to the backbenches, to Alan Johnson, to Yvette Cooper, even – gasp! – to Ed Miliband who, judged alongside Mr Corbyn, appears a great statesman rather than the political failure he is.

Since Mr Corbyn won the Labour leadership – against the wishes of the vast majority of his parliamentary colleagues – last September, the Tories’ compelling message has been that they offer competence while he offers chaos. Now, the battle is between Tory chaos and Labour chaos. And no party does chaos like Mr Corbyn’s Labour.

The deluded who argue that Mr Corbyn’s thwocking great mandate from ordinary Labour members – most of whom joined the party for three quid in order to vote for him and have since done little else – will translate into a surge of support among the wider electorate at the 2020 general election will, of course, continue to believe that power will soon be theirs.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Mr Corbyn’s Labour languishes behind Mr Cameron’s Conservative Party in the polls. A survey conducted by YouGov in January found the Labour leader’s approval rating was -39. This, by any measure, is an absolute disaster. For Mr Corbyn to turn this around would take an intervention of the divine variety. That, the atheist in me thinks, is highly unlikely to happen.

How different things might have been had Labour chosen a leader last year who could appeal to the middle-class voters who decide the result of elections across the United Kingdom.

When Ed Miliband bowed to the inevitable and resigned after last year’s general election drubbing, many MPs hoped that former soldier Dan Jarvis would throw his hat in the ring.

Mr Jarvis has a great story to tell. He’s lived life. As well as serving his country with distinction as a member of the parachute regiment and, later, the Special Forces Support Group, Mr Jarvis has dealt with the sort of personal tragedy with which many can empathise – the loss of his first wife to cancer left him a single father to two young children.

Mr Jarvis is what we might call a stand-up guy. But it was those family circumstances which, last year, led to him ruling himself out of the leadership contest.

Labour members – or, at least, those among them who do not believe winning elections represents a betrayal of principle – must surely be wondering “what if?” right now.

Had Mr Jarvis been leading Labour, then the party would have been in a very strong position today. Tory division creates a space for a credible opposition to fill. Mr Corbyn – as poll after poll tells anyone who cares to examine their findings – is not considered a credible candidate to become prime minister.

David Cameron faces a bumpy few months until the EU referendum – and if he fails to persuade the UK public to follow his lead in supporting an In vote, he may have no option but to resign.

A Labour Party taken seriously by voters would be revelling in Tory splits. As it is, the Conservatives’ European problem won’t make a whit of difference to the prospects of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.