Dani Garavelli: Lost leader gives Corbyn cause to cringe

Yvette Cooper listens during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. 'Picture: PA
Yvette Cooper listens during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons. 'Picture: PA
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Shortly after MPs voted against the government to limit the Treasury’s powers in the event of no deal, Steve Anglesey, journalist for the pro-Remain newspaper The New European, tweeted a photograph of Yvette Cooper with the caption: “The leader of the Opposition has turned up.”

Like all good political sideswipes, this one took its power from its pinpoint accuracy. With her amendment to the finance bill, the backbench MP had done more to try to safeguard the country from the worst-case scenario than Jeremy Corbyn has done in months .

Cooper’s move means that, should the government want to use some of the specific powers in the finance bill to implement no deal, it would have to first give parliament a vote or apply to extend article 50. It does not prevent no deal but it does make it more difficult to navigate and so, arguably, reduces the likelihood of it taking place.

With typical churlishness, Corbyn failed to acknowledge Cooper’s achievement; in a statement he said Labour was taking every opportunity to prevent no deal, without ever mentioning her name.

Other people, however, were more appreciative. And not for the first time, the words “if only” were repeated as a lament to past leadership elections and missed opportunities.

Corbyn’s simmering resentment of his former rival is only to be expected. Cooper may have come a poor third when she stood against him in the 2015; she may have been pushed to the backbenches by those who despise her as a Blairite, but her quiet strengths still serve to accentuate Corbyn’s blustering weaknesses.

The Tory government could not have done more to sabotage itself and its citizens if it had assembled the finest minds in the country and asked them to draw up a step-by-step plan. Any political leader worth a damn would be annihilating Theresa May at PMQs every week and charting a clear route out of the current crisis.

Instead, Corbyn has dithered and delayed. Every trap that has been set for him, he has fallen into; every internal problem (such as allegations of anti-Semitism) he has exacerbated. If an opportunity to land a blow has presented itself to him, he has squandered it. Thus the Tory party staggers on critically wounded, but with no-one willing or able to put it out of its misery.

At no point has Corbyn come up with a coherent strategy on Brexit. His own MPs and MSPs have been in a constant state of confusion over the party’s position on everything from whether or not to stay in the Customs Union to whether or not to support a second referendum.

Now Corbyn has called for a general election to break the deadlock; yet such is the internal disarray that, on Thursday, Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard was unable to say whether the party intended to campaign for or against leaving the EU.

As Corbyn and his shadow cabinet have been failing to bring down a government already on its knees, Cooper has been distinguishing herself in the Home Affairs Select Committee and on the back benches. When May announced the snap general election in April 2017, Cooper won plaudits for her caustic put-down.

“The Prime Minister said yesterday that she was calling a General Election because parliament was blocking Brexit, but three-quarters of this parliament voted for article 50 and two-thirds of the Lords voted for article 50, so that’s not true, is it?” she said.

“A month ago she told her official spokesman to rule out an election and that wasn’t true either, was it? She wants us to believe that she is a woman of her word but isn’t the truth that we cannot believe a single word she says?”

She attacked the government on its decision to end a scheme to take lone child refugees and single-handedly forced the resignation of Amber Rudd during the Windrush scandal with one quietly delivered, but dynamite question: “Targets for removals [deportations] – when were they set?” she asked. Rudd denied any such targets existed – a statement quickly established as false – and so she had to go.

Admittedly, Cooper comes with baggage. As her critics never tire of pointing out, she previously backed a stricter asylum regime and did not oppose the government’s Immigration Bill. She also voted in favour of the Iraq War and lobbied to restrict benefits for new EU migrants.

Having said that, were Brexit to happen, without or without a deal, the situation for EU migrants would be considerably worse. In a Westminster and Labour Party with a superfluity of egos and a dearth of semi-competent operators, at least Cooper comes across as serious, able and committed.

Corbyn posits himself as the voice of the working classes, yet he has done little to try to stop the economic havoc that is about to be unleashed upon them (partly on the grounds that many in deprived areas voted for it); Cooper is a dreaded centrist, but understands voters were sold a lie, and that the most vulnerable will be the hardest hit.

Accused of being unpatriotic for trying to make it more difficult for the Prime Minister, she insisted it would 
be unpatriotic to do anything else, given the damage a no-deal Brexit would inflict.

For this, former Daily Mail journalist Quentin Letts derided her as earnest and compared her to a kindergarten teacher talking down to her pupils. She saw herself, he said, as more in tune with morality than others.

Looking round Westminster at the moment that seems a reasonable assumption. After all, the bar isn’t set very high. Amidst the preening and braying of the Brexiteer donkeys, and the student politics posturing of the Corbyn camp, her sober, if slightly sanctimonious, manner is a breath of fresh air.

After Cooper’s performance in the wake of the snap general election announcement, Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell was seen mouthing the words “leadership pitch”. In the end there was no third leadership contest; it is impossible to know whether Labour would have won had she been at the helm.

But Cooper’s achievement in forcing the first of two humiliating government defeats means she is once again a contender, with some admirers suggesting she should be asked to head up a Government of National Unity

Given there is less unity in Westminster than there is at the average wedding scramble, this seems unlikely. But she does now feel like a leader-in-waiting.

Last weekend, one poll suggested Labour would lose by a landslide if it backed Brexit in any forthcoming general election; and yet even this does not appear to be focusing minds.

On the evidence of the past few days, Cooper is exactly what the party needs: a woman capable of taking on the Tories with a grit, determination and charm that Corbyn lacks; a woman who understands that the point of being in Opposition is to try to get yourself back into power.