BREXIT UPDATE 37: Corbyn Fights Back: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

July 14, 2019

In Uncategorized


At the ceremony marking the opening of the new European Parliament on July 2, the stunts adopted by the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats can only have strengthened the UK’s position as the laughing-stock of Europe.  When the European anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, was played, the Brexit Party MEPs ostentatiously turned their backs; in contrast, the Liberal Democrat MEPs wore yellow T-shirts with “Stop Brexit” on the front and “Bollocks to Brexit” on the back.[1]

As Chelley Ryan pointed out in her “Open Letter” to Tom Watson (quoted in Brexit Update 36), Labour “is the only party that has put forward a sensible compromise position on Brexit”, between the two polarised extremes symbolised by these antics.  But, under pressure from the clamorous Remain camp led by Watson, Labour has been attempting to clarify its position on a second referendum.  On July 8, the leaders of the five leading trades unions affiliated to the Labour Party had a meeting with Corbyn, after which they put forward their Brexit stance, which mostly reiterated the position that has for some time been put forward by Corbyn in interviews (see Brexit Updates 9, 32 and 36). The final text of the union’s stance runs as follows:

“Scenario 1: The Labour Party should confirm that whatever deal is negotiated by the new Tory Prime Minister or an exit based on no deal should be put to the people in a public confirmatory vote.  The options must be:

  1. Accepting the deal or a Tory no deal in the knowledge of its terms.
  2. Remaining in the European Union.

In this event, the Labour Party should campaign to remain in the European Union.

Scenario 2:  In the event that a general election is called, Labour’s manifesto position should be:

Negotiating with the European Union to respect the Brexit vote from 2016, reflecting the negotiating priorities that Labour has outlined.

Any final Labour deal should be put back to the people.  The options on the ballot paper should be:

  1. Accepting the Labour negotiated deal.
  2. Remaining in the European Union.

The Labour Party’s campaign position on such a ballot should depend on the deal negotiated.”[2]

It was generally understood from Corbyn’s recent statements in interviews that, in the event of a Labour deal, Labour would campaign for its own deal rather than to remain in the EU.  After all, what would be the point of Labour going to all the trouble to negotiate a deal if it then decides not to campaign in its favour?  So this last bit comes over as a confusing fudge.

The following day, July 9, after a meeting with the Shadow Cabinet, Corbyn wrote to Labour Party members a letter that included Scenario 1 but made no mention of Scenario 2.  He wrote:

“Whoever becomes the new Prime Minister should have the confidence to put their deal, or No Deal, back to the people in a public vote.  In those circumstances, I want to make it clear that Labour would campaign for Remain against either No Deal or a Tory deal that does not protect the economy and jobs.  Labour has a crucial, historic duty to safeguard jobs, rights and living standards.  But no Brexit outcome alone can do that.  We need a general election”.[3]

In an interview with the BBC, Corbyn made it clear that Labour’s manifesto position on Brexit and a public vote, in the event of a general election being called, will be decided at that time, depending on the circumstances in which the general election is held: “We will decide very quickly at the start of that campaign what our position will be.”[4]  So Labour’s Scenario 2 has been postponed until a General Election campaign begins.  Though it is being widely suggested in the mainstream media that Corbyn has reluctantly shifted his stance in the last few days in response to pressure, his position has not in fact changed from what he has been saying for some time: that he would prefer remaining in the EU to accepting a “hard Tory Brexit” or No Deal, but that his first priority is a General Election and the negotiation of a “soft” Labour Brexit deal with the EU leaders – a deal that he has already agreed will be put to the people and in favour of which he and the NEC are surely likely to advocate campaigning.  So Corbyn continues with his delicate balancing-act between Leave and Remain and has postponed any further wrangling with Remainers till the start of a general election campaign.

Pressure on Corbyn has continued too on the antisemitism issue.  The final decision on Chris Williamson was also postponed on Tuesday (July 9) at a meeting of the full disputes panel of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC).   The ruling to lift his suspension (see Brexit Update 36) was rejected by the full disputes panel; but this full panel does not have the power to overturn a decision made by a three or five member panel; all the full panel can do is reject the specialist panel’s decision, then refer the case to a different three or five-member panel.  The new specialist panel may refer the Williamson issue to the NCC, Labour’s highest disciplinary body that deals only with the most serious cases; though Williamson has done nothing that can be considered seriously antisemitic or indeed antisemitic at all.[5]

Accusations against Labour continued this week with a highly biased BBC Panorama programme called “Is Labour Antisemitic”?   As Labour pointed out in a statement following the airing of the programme, the question mark was redundant; the issue was “predetermined”, with only anti-Corbyn  ex-members of Labour Party staff and anti-Corbyn Jewish members of Labour  interviewed.  The statement described the programme as

“a seriously inaccurate, politically one-sided polemic, which breached basic journalistic standards, invented quotes and edited emails to change their meaning….We complained in advance to the BBC over the way the programme was put together and its choice of a presenter who has expressed overt personal and political hostility to Jeremy Corbyn’s politics.  We will be pursuing complaints at every level.”[6]

In an advance statement, Labour had said of the ex-Labour members of staff interviewed in the programme:

“It appears these disaffected former officials include those who have always opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, worked to actively undermine it, and have both personal and political axes to grind”.[7]

The row has been escalated further today (July 14) with news that two of the former members of Labour staff, Sam Matthews and Louise Withers-Green, have decided to sue the Labour Party for defamation.[8]

In an attempt further to undermine Corbyn, the mainstream media has also recently seized hold of a Yougov poll  on voting intentions in a general election (published on July 4) that for the first time put Labour in fourth place on only 18 per cent. It also for the first time put the Conservatives in first place, on 24 per cent, with the Brexit Party second on 23 per cent and the Liberal Democrats third, with 20 per cent.[9]  As I mentioned in Brexit Update 33, recent polls on voting intentions in a hypothetical general election have fluctuated wildly, in accordance with the circumstances under which people are polled at the time – thus just after the European elections, the polarisation that became clear in those elections was reflected in first the Lib Dems topping the national poll, then the Brexit Party. The July 4 poll was held at the height of the Conservative leadership contest, with the Tories benefiting from the prospect of a new leader.  The Yougov poll showing Labour in fourth place was all over the mainstream media, which ignored other polls showing Labour in the lead.[10]

Meanwhile, the result of the Conservative Party leadership contest will be announced in just over a week (Tuesday July 23).  On July 9, the first head to head televised debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt was held on ITV.[11]  Hunt emphasised his background as an entrepreneur, maintaining that he would have the right negotiating skills to produce a deal before October 31. He said he would take the UK out of the EU on that date if a deal proved impossible – but in contrast to Johnson, he said he didn’t want October 31 to be a “do or die” deadline.  Johnson attacked Hunt’s past as a Remainer, calling him a defeatist for not being optimistic enough about the UK’s ability to cope with a No Deal Brexit; while Hunt in turn accused him of “blind optimism”.  Johnson laid great emphasis – as he is doing in all his campaigning speeches – on his terms as Mayor of London, stressing that he defeated Ken Livingstone twice for the mayoralty and so is ideally placed to defeat Corbyn in what he called “the forthcoming election” – so it is clear that Johnson is expecting a general election soon.

But the part of the debate that has had most repercussions was  Johnson’s response to a question about the UK’s former ambassador to the  United States, Sir Kim Darroch, whose comments on the Trump administration, as “inept” and “dysfunctional” had been leaked to the Mail on Sunday, which published them on July 7.[12]  In a series of retaliatory tweets, President Trump wrote:

“I do not know the Ambassador but he is not liked or well thought of within the US.  We will no longer deal with him….The wacky Ambassador that the UK foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy….I don’t know the Ambassador but have been told he is a pompous fool”.[13]

When Johnson and Hunt were asked during the debate whether they would keep Sir Kim as UK Ambassador to the US, Hunt replied that he would retain him till he is due to retire at the end of the year.   But – evidently in order to maintain his excellent relations with Trump – Johnson repeatedly evaded the question, till he finally said: “I’m not going to be so presumptuous as to assume I am going to be in a position to do that – but what I will say is that I and I alone will decide who takes important and politically sensitive jobs such as the UK Ambassador to the US”.[14]

Sir Kim resigned the next day, July 10 – and it is widely reported that the clinching reason for his decision was Johnson’s refusal to support him. Johnson has been attacked by senior Conservative MPs for abandoning Darroch – for instance, Sir Alan Duncan, a foreign office minister, has accused him of throwing Darroch “under the bus”.[15]  But what about Conservative Party members, who after all are the ones who will decide?  According to the results, published three days ago (July 11), of  a survey of Tory Party members that was conducted by the Conservative Home website, Johnson is on 72 per cent,Hunt on 28 per cent and 72 per cent have already voted. Conservative Home writes: “On these figures, Johnson has already won”.[16]

In the same July 9 debate, Johnson, unlike Hunt, also refused to “take off the table” the idea of proroguing Parliament in order to force through a No Deal Brexit.   But on July 9, another attempt to stop this scenario failed when the Speaker again failed to select an amendment – put forward by the Conservative MP Dominic Grieve — that would have precluded the prorogation of Parliament in October.[17]