At Prime Minister’s Question Time this week, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn rose from his seat and was greeted by loud cheers from the Conservative benches. On previous occasions, when he finishes speaking the Conservatives chant “More! More! More!” Sometimes, Corbyn is forced to pause, to wait for the laughter from the Tories to die down.
This happens every week.
Tory MPs genuinely love it when Corbyn is at the despatch box.
They have reasons to be grateful. Since Corbyn took over, he has transformed Labour from a party on the verge of power to a protest movement that polls at the level of an also-ran party, like the Liberal Democrats at their height.
The Conservative party could not have asked for more.
Before Corbyn took over the Labour party leadership in 2015, voters were moving toward Labour. People forget that although the party lost the 2015 general election, Labour under Ed Miliband added 700,000 votes to its total vote base. The vote was actually a swing toward Labour, even though the Conservatives won.
Today, Labour only attracts 28% support when voters are asked who they would prefer at a general election:
The other reason the Tories are enjoying Corbyn right now is that he is even more pro-Brexit than many of their own MPs are.
Last week, when the High Court ruled that Article 50 must be voted on by the House of Commons, Labour was handed a huge gift. Voting down Article 50 was a chance for the opposition to inflict an embarrassing defeat on Prime Minister Theresa May.
It’s do-able, too. There is a technical majority in parliament in favour of Remain.
Labour’s official position on the EU referendum was Remain. Corbyn campaigned for Remain. If he was bold, Corbyn could have put a stake in the ground. He could have followed Miliband’s lead and called for a cross-party coalition of MPs to unite to defeat the government on the one issue that is most important to the Tories. A Commons vote against Article 50 would leave May’s government looking ridiculous. It might force May to call a snap general election.
Most importantly, it would have restored Labour’s reputation as a party that wields actual power, a party that can inflict damage on the Conservatives when it wants to.
On paper, May would win an election today. But it is not a guarantee. Elections are unpredictable things. (Everyone thought Miliband would be prime minister in 2015, after all.) And while Leavers are very, very angry at the High Court, there is also some evidence that a majority of Brits, given a second chance, would now vote to remain in the EU. (Those people deserve representation too, yet the party that gives them the biggest voice right now is the Scottish National Party.)
Corbyn did not do that, of course.
Within minutes of the High Court ruling he said Labour would support Article 50 in a Commons vote. May can now breathe easy. With some aggressive whipping – and the fear of MPs in pro-Leave seats losing their jobs – she can now muster the majority she needs to get Brexit rolling.
Think about how weird that is: Corbyn, the socialist, handing May a free pass.
There is a perverse pattern here. Corbyn is so left-wing that he is willing to show up at a Socialist Workers Party rally. But he is more pro-Brexit than many Conservative MPs:
- It was Corbyn who said, the day after the referendum, that “Article 50 has to be invoked now” – before anyone in government had actually figured out how to invoke it or what it meant to do so. It was Corbyn whose campaigning for Remain was so lukewarm that his own MPs suspected he actually voted Leave. And Corbyn is conspicuous by his absence in efforts to influence the Brexit process. It is Miliband who has waged the lonely backbench war to get parliament a voice on Brexit.
These are not small things.
Brexit is the most important issue of our time. It will fundamentally alter our constitution and our economy. It will hurt a lot of workers. It will make them poorer, certainly in the short-term and probably in the long term.
And it poses a real risk of demoting the UK to the status of a second-rung nation, like Portugal or the Netherlands. They are nice places to live. But it has been centuries since they had a meaningful hand in world affairs.
No one doubts the sincerity of Corbyn and his supporters. You can see why they have rallied around a leader who is not another Oxford/Cambridge/private school SPAD who graduated under Tony Blair. You can see why Labour members want real meat in their politics. It is refreshing to hear a politician focused on the real issues, someone who does not care whether he gets airtime on Sky News or not.
But Labour members who voted for Corbyn are consigning the party to history. It is difficult to see Labour growing back into a national force under Corbyn.
For instance, in the Richmond Park bye-election triggered by MP Zac Goldsmith’s resignation from the Conservative party, Labour is standing a candidate even though it has no chance of winning.
If Labour agreed not to stand, then the Liberal Democrats would have a shot at taking the seat from Goldsmith. The Conservatives aren’t standing because they know they cannot beat Zac. And the Greens have stood aside precisely to maximise the Liberal opposition. The Libs held the seat for years until Goldsmith came along. Labour’s presence on the ballot, however, all but assures Goldsmith will win his seat back as an independent.
It’s yet another example of how Corbyn assists the Tories.
When Corbyn first ran for leader in 2015, The Telegraph started a joke campaign to encourage its Conservative readers to pay the £3 membership fee and vote for Corbyn, precisely because he is the best thing for the Tory party.
Obviously, Corbyn is not literally trying to help Theresa May’s government. But it is worth pointing out that he is having the same effect as if he were.
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