Paul Vallely: Corbyn’s Brexit ambiguity won’t last 

11 January 2019

Labour leader under pressure to take a stance on the EU, says Paul Vallely

PA

Jeremy Corbyn, after he made a Brexit speech on Thursday

Jeremy Corbyn, after he made a Brexit speech on Thursday

IN ALL the prolonged political shambles that is Brexit, one dog has not barked. So far, at any rate. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been oddly muted in recent weeks and months. The time has come for him to get off the fence.

It is not hard to see why he has, until now, adopted a position of strategic ambiguity. As he pointed out to an interviewer in December, 60 per cent of Labour voters put their cross in the box marked Leave, and only 40 per cent wanted Britain to remain in the European Union. Why alienate Labour voters, of either persuasion, by taking a firm line one way or another, he presumably thought: let’s just leave the Conservative Party to carry on making a fool of itself, as Theresa May tries, hopelessly, to reconcile the irreconcilables. After all, as the old maxim has it, oppositions do not win elections; governments lose them.

Yet, recent opinion polls suggest that 72 per cent of Labour voters are now in favour of a second referendum. There could be several reasons for this. One is the continuing inability of the hopelessly fractured Conservative Party to unite behind a coherent negotiating position from which to deal with the EU.

But perhaps Labour voters have been persuaded by the sheer weight of evidence piling up, day by day, week by week, month by month, which suggests that Brexit will be bad for the British economy, and a no-deal Brexit would be downright disastrous. Perhaps Mr Corbyn dismisses this as Project Fear — or suspects that that is how those expert warnings will be received by the alienated rump of the population who are normally too disillusioned to vote, but who found their voice in the referendum.

It may be that Mr Corbyn continues to nurse the atavistic antipathy to the EU of his youth, which saw the European project as a tool of corporate capitalism, looking at every turn to oppress the workingman and woman. Whatever his motivation, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Mr Corbyn sees the future stability and prosperity of Britain as of secondary importance to getting Labour into 10 Downing Street.

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Mr Corbyn has two problems here. The first is that the idealistic supporters of the Momentum movement, who swept him into the Labour leadership, now turn out to be among the most vehement advocates of a second referendum. It is old-style leftists, such as the Communist Party, who remain the most committed supporters of Brexit on the left of the political spectrum.

The second is that the grumbling discontent of Labour moderates in the Commons is finally crystallising into political action. On Tuesday, the former Labour Cabinet minister, Yvette Cooper, laid down a cross-party amendment to the Finance Bill, which resulted in a defeat for the Government, sending a clear signal that the Commons oppose a no-deal Brexit. Mr Corbyn decided to throw the whole of the Labour vote behind it, but only after it had got the backing of Labour heavyweights from the Blair/Brown era, along with the support of half a dozen top Conservatives. If Mr Corbyn will not take back control, then Labour MPs must do it for him.

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