Messy politics offers Mr Corbyn a chance on Brexit

PUBLISHED: 14:12 11 May 2018 | UPDATED: 14:12 11 May 2018

Jeremy Corbyn has been handed an opportunity  but will he take it? 
Photo: PA / Andrew Matthews

Jeremy Corbyn has been handed an opportunity but will he take it? Photo: PA / Andrew Matthews

PA Wire/PA Images

Do you remember those glorious, simpler times in politics? They were not actually that long ago.

David Cameron was the leader of the Conservatives, Nick Clegg had elbowed his Liberal Democrats into a coalition and Ed Miliband was on the verge of sneaking his Labour Party back into power.

It was all quite simple.

On promising a referendum on the divisive question about Britain’s role in Europe if the Tories were to win a majority, Mr Cameron believed he had solved a problem. Now the backbench awkward squad would stop pestering him. And anyway the likely outcome would be another coalition with the Lib Dems and he could forget all about that promise.

But he won a majority – and got a taste for gambling. So buoyed was Mr Cameron by winning the Scottish referendum (“The Queen purred” he boasted after the victory) he went in to the Brexit vote under prepared and badly advised.

He had not read the signs, he had developed a tin ear to a great swathe of the electorate. But he was by no means the first politician to underestimate the difficult truth that a lot of Britons – a slim majority as it transpires – did not see a future within the European Union.

For far too long those with concerns about Brussels had just been ignored. It was we-know-best politics of the very worst kind.

And Labour were far from immune. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn is also a reaction to a belief that politicians were not listening.

A lot of people, from all sides, wanted a change. They wanted to shake things up. And, for better or worse, things are now very messy.

During peacetime a prime minister has never before faced such a difficult set of challenges.

Theresa May has no majority, a warring cabinet and divided wider party and is trying to make a success of some of the most complex negotiations in history. The tiniest shift or bump in the road could send her premiership spiralling off into oblivion. And she is hardly being helped by a foreign secretary who is so desperate for her job that he is willing to describe one of her flagship Brexit solutions as “crazy”.

But something has been bubbling under the surface for Labour as well.

Last week after the local election I wrote a piece in this paper explaining why I thought it was a bad night for Labour. I was set upon online for taking this view.

Now, I welcome the views of anyone who is willing to read anything I write. Especially opinion pieces because political debate is vital.

But it did strike me that a dangerous blindness has descended upon many of Mr Corbyn’s supporters. Many people messaged me on social media to argue that in fact the local election results had been a resounding success for Labour. The truth is Labour were not just hoping but expecting to do much better.

Internal analysis of the result show Labour actually lost support in 50 of the most marginal areas of the country – regions they would need to win in a general election.

Although still largely anecdotal one explanation for this apparent cooling in affection for Mr Corbyn is Brexit.

It is true that many Labour supporters backed quitting the European Union. And it is certainly true that Mr Corbyn himself and the left of the party have long-held eurosceptic views.

But the vast majority of Labour voters – if not perhaps the influx of Momentum members – are opposed to Brexit and believe that if the UK has to leave Europe it should remain inside the customs union and even the single market.

And perhaps, he is listening. At prime minister’s questions this week Mr Corbyn grilled Mrs May on the proposed customs partnership – and Mr Johnson’s latest outburst.

Or is it that the Brexit pressure is mounting on Mr Corbyn as well? He also suffered a Brexit rebellion in the Lords this week and there remains a very vocal section of his own MPs who openly oppose Labour’s stance.

But the most likely reason Mr Corbyn could be shaping up for a Brexit u-turn is the opportunities it offers to defeat the government. With all the amendments winging their way back from the Lords the government is vulnerable. Maybe Mr Corbyn sudden interest in Brexit is born out of that?

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