The Corbynite Manoeuvre
With the proroguing of parliament last night, a genuinely disastrous week for the Prime Minister has come to an end (though if he expects the next five weeks to be peaceful, he will be disappointed). It was difficult to look away from the pointless self-immolation of the Conservative Party, but perhaps a bit more attention ought to be paid to Jeremy Corbyn, who has been steadily passing the Prime Minister cans of petrol. Never a great orator, his ‘rather-put-out-geography-teacher’ tone is proving to be unexpectedly effective at negating Johnson’s purple prose and hyperbolic rhetoric. By running a largely successful whipping operation in the recent parliamentary debates, the ‘chaos with Ed Miliband’ narrative has been flipped and Labour is looking more like the ‘strong and stable’ choice. However, Labour-supporters should not be complacent, because the odds are still against them.
I am eagerly awaiting the new polling data this week, but so far Johnson has been doing well. He has a better personal approval rating than Corbyn and the Tories are outpacing Labour by double digits in some polls. Given the state of things for the past few months this is remarkable. A lot of this can be hung on Corbyn. He is the epitome of a marmite politician: you love him, or you hate him. This has been reinforced by an inveterate campaign against him by the right-wing press, by needless self-inflicted wounds on issues like anti-Semitism, and by a lack of clarity on Brexit. As much as some people would love to see a less divisive leader of the opposition, it is not going to happen before the next election. So, the question is how can a Corbyn-led Labour Party win?
One of the most important debates in recent days has been whether Labour ought to go short or long on the election date. Thankfully it seems as though going long has carried the day. Why this was a debate is beyond me. It is plain as day that Labour needs to go long. It is an open secret that Southside is not ready for an immediate election, they need time to prep. More importantly, a post-Halloween election would be a personal humiliation and professional disaster for the Prime Minister. He made an unforced error binding himself so closely to the 31 October deadline and Labour can capitalise on this. His credibility will be in shreds if we are still in the EU on 1 November. As much as he will try to blame Corbyn and parliament, the PM will look weak and incompetent; the victim of events rather than their master.
Corbyn will never win over the Murdoch press and one can only hope that the self-inflicted wounds will bind themselves. That leaves Brexit. Labour’s big problem on Brexit is that it has never had a simple message. Corbyn has always placed caveats on Labour’s position (some sensible, some not). However, Labour now have something that is easy to understand: you can’t trust Boris Johnson. Labour will seek an election once the possibility of a no deal Brexit has been defused, because Johnson cannot be trusted to keep his word. He said he wouldn’t prorogue parliament, then he did. He said he didn’t want an election, now he does. He said he would abide by the law, then he said he would rather ‘die in a ditch’. The Labour line ought to be ‘we want an election, but we will not sacrifice the national interest to have one.’ That means holding off on setting an election date until the European Council meeting on 18 October. Corbyn will be a safe pair of hands compared to Johnson, who cannot even manage his own party, win a single vote in the Commons, or keep his own brother in his cabinet. It’s not a long-term Brexit position, but it will do for the narrow time between now and an election.
The rebuttals available to Johnson are limited. This weekend Cummings, sensing growing panic in the ranks, has told aides to be ‘cool like Fonzies’and to wait for others to melt under the heat. Yet, his master plan seems literally to be making chicken noises from the side lines while moderates in the cabinet resign. It is not exactly blistering for Corbyn, nor is it compatible with Johnson’s Churchillian pretensions. Indeed, it makes the government look puerile and impotent. All that Corbyn needs to do is hold his nerve and wait. And this is the key to a winning strategy for the Labour party:be the adults in the room.