Euan McColm: Corbyn has to take on the ‘bastards’ who created EU calamity

Former prime minister John Major was under no illusion that his cabinet contained a number of Eurosceptic zealots. Photograph: Getty Images
Former prime minister John Major was under no illusion that his cabinet contained a number of Eurosceptic zealots. Photograph: Getty Images
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Former Tory Prime Minister John Major had the measure of the Eurosceptic zealots in his cabinet. Famously, he was recorded in an unguarded moment describing three members of his front-bench as bastards.

The reason he couldn’t just sack the three – thought to be Michael Howard, Peter Lilley, and Michael Portillo (then a right-wing bogeyman rather than the affable presenter of tiresome television programmes about train journeys) – was, he told ITN’s then political editor, Michael Brunson, that he daren’t release these bastards into the wilds of the back-benches. They’d only breed.

Major was leader, he added, of “a party that is still harking back to a golden age that never was”. As the language of modern-day Tory Brexiteers would attest, this delusion continues to afflict many party members.

In 1995, two years after his indiscreet remarks, Major resigned as leader of the Conservative Party. It was time for his tormentors to put up or shut up, he said. His policy of appeasement had failed and so it was time to declare war.

Major comfortably defeated John Redwood in the subsequent leadership election and returned to Downing Street to prepare for his inevitable defeat by Tony Blair’s resurgent Labour Party in 1997.

One of the bastards, Michael Howard, was later – briefly – to become leader of the Tories. Not only had Major failed to see off (or, at least, placate) his party’s troublesome Eurosceptics, they were growing stronger.

The bleak conclusion of what had – for decades – been an internal Conservative Party row came last June with the result of the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.

The bastards won.

They won because, as is the nature of zealots, they fought relentlessly for their cause. For years, while pro-EU politicians concerned themselves with other matters of policy, the Eurosceptics spoke of only one thing – the EU.

The monomania of Eurosceptics meant that the subject of the EU had rarely been out of the headlines in the years before their referendum victory. By sheer force of numbers, anti-EU Tories created the climate in which David Cameron took the foolish, and career-ending, decision to call last year’s referendum.

Prime Minister Theresa May now leads us stumbling towards a Brexit that, rather than “freeing” the UK as Leave campaigners would have it, threatens to cripple the economy.

The sensitive matter of the Irish border is now causing tension between Dublin, Belfast, and London, the prospect of a trade deal of any worth between the UK and the EU looks bleak, and – through all of this chaos – the Prime Minister is weak, perpetually undermined by members of her own cabinet. John Major had a name for those.

What those of us who believe Brexit will be calamitous for the UK need right now is for pro-EU politicians to start showing the same angry defiance that kept the Eurosceptics fired-up for decades. We need some pro-EU bastards.

As the PM limps from European meeting to European meeting, humiliated, grinning anxiously as she talks of “progress”, the Labour Party should, right now, be tearing the Government to shreds over Brexit.

A decent opposition, seeing the prospect of a “no deal” Brexit, with all of its economic implications, would be running the show at Westminster.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn – with his history of Euroscepticism – clearly hasn’t the inclination to do what needs to be done. Even the prospect of bringing down the PM doesn’t seem enough to put a fire in the Labour leader’s belly.

I’m not, as a rule, much in favour of anger as the driving force behind political campaigning. My preference is for pragmatism, good faith, and achievable progress (the sort of things that would mark me down as a hated “centrist dad” by hip young Corbynistas). But if ever there was a time in UK politics for anger to spur action, it is surely now.

Remainers should be angry. Having been forced to participate in an unwanted referendum and seen a campaign fuelled by lies and scaremongering win the day, Brexit is about to hit hard.

Remainers should be angry that some of those who nodded along to the lie that Brexit would mean an extra £350 million a week for the NHS now sit in cabinet. Remainers should be angry that, already, some companies are moving operations out of the UK. Remainers should be angry that the allegedly pro-EU opposition is failing to try to stop Brexit.

The self-identifying radicals who follow Corbyn excuse their failure to take the Brexit fight to the Government by explaining that the public has spoken and its view must be respected.

Well, the public speaks every time it elects a Tory Government but that doesn’t mean the Labour Party shouldn’t oppose them.

There is absolutely nothing radical about standing idly by while an incompetent Prime Minister is slapped about by EU leaders and members of her own cabinet en route to a divorce with Europe that’s going to cost billions.

Nor is there anything radical about ignoring the impact of Brexit on society. It’s an insular move, a rejection of international co-operation, a retreat to John Major’s “golden age that never was”.

In this era of men such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, we have to choose whether we reach out or look inwards. Maintaining a society that reaches out is surely something worth fighting for?

Brexiteers continue to lay the blame for a lack of progress in negotiations between the UK and the EU at the feet of “Remoaners”.

There is no logic behind this assertion but it sounds better than the reality which is that, having won a referendum to “free” the UK from the EU, they have placed the UK at the mercy of the EU during negotiations to leave.

The case for Brexit grows weaker by the day. It’s not too late for Labour to refocus on the matter, to be bold, to be radical.

Bringing down Tory bastards is precisely the sort of thing I’d have thought Jeremy Corbyn might enjoy.