BREXIT UPDATE 39: Johnson Versus Corbyn: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

July 29, 2019

In Uncategorized

BREXIT UPDATE 39: Johnson vs. Corbyn

As everyone had expected, Boris Johnson was announced on Tuesday July 23 as the new leader of the Conservatives and new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.  His victory, on 66 per cent of the votes, gives him an overwhelming mandate among his Party.  Jeremy Hunt acknowledged that, as someone who campaigned and voted for Remain in the 2016 referendum, he had never had a chance against Johnson with the right-wing Brexiteer Tory membership. [1]

Yet, triumphant though he is among Tory MPs and the 160,000-strong membership, in Parliament Johnson has a working majority of just two, which is expected to be reduced to one after a by-election in Wales next week.[2]  It will be very difficult for his government to pass any controversial legislation, particularly Brexit legislation; which is why a General Election is widely expected in the coming months.  Indeed, Johnson, in his first speech as leader, given to the Tory faithful after the result of the contest was announced, placed much emphasis on “defeating Corbyn”, as one of his three aims: to deliver Brexit, to unite the country and to defeat Corbyn. [3] His address to the nation on the steps of 10, Downing Street resembled a campaign speech, by a)insisting that he will do a deal with the EU; b) adding that all the same he was prepared for “the remote possibility” that “Brussels refuses any more to negotiate”, necessitating the UK to leave without a deal on October 31, and c) attempting to pre-empt Corbyn by going beyond Brexit to list the improved social services his government will provide, including a pledge to recruit 20,000 new police officers (widely regarded as a campaign ploy).[4]

Few were taken in by the words “the remote possibility”; it is clear that the chances of a No Deal Brexit are not remote at all.  In his first House of Commons speech on Thursday (July 25) – a speech typically strong on rhetoric and optimism but short on detail — Johnson insisted his priority was to abolish the backstop.[5]  On Friday (July 26) the Johnson government was reported to be refusing to engage in talks with EU leaders unless they agree to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and ditch the backstop.  Johnson’s speech on the steps of 10, Downing Street sent a clear message to the EU leaders that, if the talks fail, he will place the blame on them.  This was not calculated to endear him to them; but it is likely that he never expected to do so and never entertained any real belief that a deal can be negotiated before the end of October.  In an article in the Sunday Times yesterday (Sunday July 28), Michael  Gove (who stabbed Johnson in the back during the leadership campaign in 2016, but has been forgiven because of his impeccable pro-Leave credentials, included in the new Cabinet and put in charge of preparations for No Deal)  wrote that “we must operate on the assumption” that the EU leaders will not reopen the withdrawal agreement and that planning for No Deal was now the “number one priority” for the government.[6]

Some, however, claim that this is all part of a negotiating strategy intended to frighten and then charm the EU:  Johnson intends to scare them first by showing, in contrast to the Maybot, that the UK means business in saying it will leave without a deal; then, when the EU leaders weaken as the leaving date looms, he thinks he can win them over with his charm to make them abolish the backstop.   This interpretation of Johnson’s thinking is put forward by Jonathan Powell, former adviser to Tony Blair, but Powell argues that these tactics will not work. [7]

Johnson’s choice of Cabinet bolsters suspicions that from the start of his premiership he knew he was heading for No Deal and an inevitable General Election.  On Wednesday (July 24), the very day he officially became Prime Minister, he sacked about half May’s Cabinet (some had already resigned), creating a Cabinet mostly of right-wingers guaranteed to be loyal to himself and not to oppose a No Deal Brexit.  Jeremy Hunt is out, as is the Brexiteer Penny Mordaunt, whom the Maybot had appointed as the UK’s first woman Defence Secretary; Mordaunt is presumed to have been sacked because she supported Hunt in the leadership contest.  The Foreign Secretary is the extreme right-wing Brexiteer Dominic Raab; the Home Secretary is Priti Patel, who in 2011 expressed support for the return of capital punishment; the Chancellor is the Thatcherite Sajid Javid.  The backbench MP Nick Boles, a supporter of the “soft” Brexit “Norway Plus” option (see Brexit Update 19), who dramatically crossed the floor of the House of Commons to leave the Conservative Party during the April 1 “indicative votes” debate (see Brexit Update 21) tweeted:

“The hard right has taken over the Conservative Party.  Thatcherites, libertarians and No Deal Brexiteers control it top to bottom.  Liberal One Nation Conservatives have been ruthlessly culled.  Only a few neutered captives are being kept on as window-dressing”.[8]

Saturday (July 27) saw a charm offensive by Johnson in the north of England. In Manchester, he pledged a two-billion pound fund for the “left behind” northern towns and a new high-speed railway between Manchester and Leeds.[9]  Johnson is clearly targeting Labour’s northern heartlands in preparation for a general election.

Meanwhile, what is happening to the Labour Party? Following the showing of the BBC Panorama programme on July 10, pressure increased on the Labour leadership in relation to the so-called antisemitism “crisis”.  On July 17, over 60 Labour peers took out an advertisement in the Guardian accusing Corbyn of fostering a climate of antisemitism in the Labour Party.   In response to an increasing uproar, Corbyn called an emergency meeting of the Shadow Cabinet on Monday, July 22.[10]

At the Shadow Cabinet meeting, Corbyn came up with two options to expedite the disciplinary process.  Under the current system, the four or five-member small disciplinary panels are required to refer the most serious cases to the National Constitutional Committee (NCC), which alone has the power to expel members.  Corbyn’s two proposed options are: 1) to give the small panels the ability to expel; 2) to set up a special new small disciplinary panel to which only the most serious cases of antisemitism would be referred.  This new panel, which would include National Executive Committee (NEC) officers and the General Secretary, Jenny Formby, would have the power to expel.  Corbyn personally supports the second option.

In its statement, the Shadow Cabinet approved the new plan (without selecting either option), but also indicated that it supported  “independent oversight”; this appears to mean supervision by independent barristers[11] – which is in fact Labour’s current policy, as we saw in the Chris Williamson case (see Brexit Update 37).  On Tuesday, July 23, the plan was referred to a meeting of the National Executive Committee (NEC).  It approved the new plan, without choosing between the two options; they will now be referred to the Labour Party Conference in the autumn.  The NEC is said to be opposed to the idea of a completely independent disciplinary process.   A Labour source is quoted as saying:

“No other political party or trade union has outsourced its complaints process. It is unclear how it could logistically work and comply with our responsibilities under data protection legislation.  It could threaten the jobs of hardworking staff who have taken swift and robust action on cases.” [12]

But, in separate letters to the Shadow Cabinet before its meeting, the leaders of the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies made it clear that they will be satisfied with nothing less than complete outsourcing of Labour’s disciplinary process to what they call an “independent body”. [13]   So it is impossible to see how any compromise with the Jewish communal leaders can be reached.  Predictably they have reacted to Corbyn’s new plan by calling it “a step backward”.[14]

A video message that Corbyn has put out contains a deep internal contradiction: on the one hand, he says “I acknowledge that there is a real problem which Labour is working to overcome”, while on the other hand he points out that cases of members who hold antisemitic views amount to 0.01 per cent of the membership of half a million – this is surely not a “real” problem in the sense of a serious problem.[15] By continuing to apologise for what is a small problem, Corbyn risks contributing to a public perception of a major problem.

Labour has set up an antisemitism mini-website – the first of several proposed websites on different forms of racism — in order to educate members on what constitutes antisemitism and how to criticise Israel without crossing the line into antisemitism.  Again, however, there is clearly no chance of reaching a compromise between Labour Party policy and that of the Jewish community leaders.  The website includes the words: “Labour is a political home for Zionists and anti-Zionists.  Neither Zionism nor anti-Zionism is in itself racism.”  But, in a JC article criticising the website, Dave Rich, a leader of the Community Security Trust (CST), insists on equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.[16]  It is likely that any “independent” disciplinary panel approved by the Jewish community leaders would also equate the two and therefore hardly be unbiased and politically neutral.  An unprecedented outsourcing of Labour’s disciplinary process to a panel approved by the Jewish communal leaders would be likely to be seen as an unwarranted exercise of control by these leaders over the Labour Party -– a perception that would ironically increase antisemitism.

The chief instigator of the pressure following the Panorama programme has been Labour’s  Deputy Leader, Tom Watson (who has also led attacks on Corbyn’s Brexit policy).  But Watson has faced strong criticism — and even calls for his resignation as  Deputy Leader — from members of the Shadow Cabinet and NEC.  This is in response to a public letter he wrote, after the showing of the Panorama programme, attacking Jennie Formby, the  Labour Party’s General Secretary, while she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer.[17]  In an angry response that she too made public, Jennie Formby pointed out that the number of Labour members who have gone through the disciplinary process for antisemitism since 2015 amounts to 0.06 per cent of the entire membership and that she has increased fourfold the speed with which cases are considered.[18]

Watson is also under great pressure in the mainstream media to resign as Labour Deputy Leader for his role in giving credibility to the false accusations of paedophilia against top public figures made by Carl Beech, who has recently been sentenced to 18 years in prison for perverting the cause of justice.  The barrister Daniel Janner QC,  son of one of Beech’s victims, Lord Janner (who, like another victim, Lord Brittan, was Jewish), has criticised Watson for his hypocrisy in “taking the moral high ground on antisemitism”.[19]  As a result of all this, Watson is now adopting a low profile.  At the NEC meeting on Tuesday (July 23) he withdrew a motion he had intended to submit that called for a) an independent complaints process and b) automatic exclusion where there was “irrefutable evidence of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia or transphobia”, and left the meeting early.[20]

But above all, the advent of Johnson and his hard-right Brexiteer Cabinet is causing many Labour MPs to realise that opposing a disastrous No Deal Brexit and preparing for a General Election surely need to take priority over trying to root out the last vestige of antisemitism from the Labour Party, in the impossible hope of appeasing Jewish community leaders. A proposed vote of no confidence in Corbyn by Labour peers has been postponed; a so-called “centrist” Labour MP, Lucy Powell, who hitherto has been “vocal” on the antisemitism issue, tweeted that such a move would be “deeply unhelpful and divisive”; and many Labour MPs are now said to be echoing these views.[21]

Labour is for now holding off tabling a vote of no-confidence in the Government that would trigger a General Election.  It is clearly too soon to put forward such a vote now, just after Johnson has been elected; most Conservative MPs will not yet want to bring down their new government.  In a Sky News interview yesterday (Sunday July 28), Corbyn said he is waiting till Parliament reconvenes in September after the summer recess to consider tabling a vote of no confidence; he said it will happen “at a time of our choosing”.[22]   But there is widespread expectation that a General Election is coming soon.  Johnson has been rumoured to be in favour of an early General Election that will pit him against Corbyn, who is regarded by the Tories as weak and undermined as a result of his Brexit policy and the antisemitism issue; Johnson, it is said, wants to fight Corbyn before he is replaced with a stronger leader who would be more of a threat.  In response, Corbynistas have been tweeting reminders of the Maybot’s similar attitude before the 2017 snap General Election (which destroyed the Conservatives’ majority) and saying: “Bring it on….the fight is on”.[23]