A Tory Leader Under Fire But Labour Still Has a Brexit Problem
Supporters and opponents alike may not like to admit it but Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are politicians with a lot in common. Both were teenage enthusiasts of politics. Both came to leadership late and unexpectedly. Neither can think on their feet terribly well in debate, nor are natural public speakers - in the manner of Blair or Obama - who appeal much beyond their core supporters. Both have paradoxical characteristics of indecision, stubbornness and resilience.
Now, both have given speeches laying out their positions as Britain enters the crucial next stage of Brexit.
Their speeches were mirror images of one another. Both were pretty poor, but their analyses were strong. Corbyn made the case for European cooperation: it was a speech that would have gone down well before the referendum. May, on the other hand, laid out the difficulties of leaving a union, the compromises ahead, the inferiority of any deal outside the Single Market. It might have played well in the referendum, it would have been a more honest start than they one she gave at Lancaster House.
Both contained a fair amount of guff and waffle. Both were unrealistic attempts to cherry pick parts of a union we are leaving. And here it was that they diverged.
However, neither were particularly serious speeches, they were political speeches. Corbyn wants space between his position and May’s, while uniting his party and dividing the Conservatives. May just needed to keep her warring rag-tag army from forming a firing squad - either on her, or themselves, while making sure she can walk into EU negotiating chambers in proper modesty.
May pleased all sides this week; she might please none when the deal is done
It is difficult to overestimate the danger May is in and how craftily she needs to act to give her party even the semblence of unity. That unity can only last as long as Brexit remains a matter of lofty ideals and long speeches. In order to survive, Theresa May is boring her opponents into submission.
Her strategy - such as it is - is one of slowly inching her position inperceptibly until it is too late. When the terms of a deal are announced could she play so deft a hand to keep Brexiters onboard?
The trajectory of her reasoning is clear and it leans away from the clean Brexit she extoled so recently. May pleased all sides this week; she might please none when the deal is done.
His mission simpler, Corbyn’s speech was politically clear: he was able to say something definite - Labour would negotiate to be part of a customs union post-Brexit.
Although the party has less of a problem with Leave voters than the Conservatives do with Remain voters, this was a big speech on a defining issue. Reasonably, any leader could expect a small shift in opinion polls. Something. Anything. In reality, nothing.
People do not follow politics closely. Labour is trusted on the NHS because it speaks about it a lot. The Tories have been banging on about Europe for three decades. It might be reasonable for voters to pressume they knew what they are speaking about. Labour is playing catch up.
Corbyn’s whole brand has been about his authencitity as a politician. It could be that voters just do not believe him
There is an old anecdote that President Reagan found himself lagging behind on the key issue of education. For the next few months, he made speech after speech on education. He did not say anything new but the poll deficit was eradicated. Not every speech is a Clause 4 moment.
Equally, Corbyn has been the change candidate but his Brexit position is one of the status quo. An unfair comparison would be John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin in 2008: it undermined his message of experience. The difference is, Corbyn’s new position is not gibberingly insane.
Nonethless, it jars. He needs to disprove that.
In the 2000s, polls showed Tory policies, on immigration and crime - say, to be popular; when they associated the policies with the Conservative Party, the same became less popular.
Corbyn may be the third most popular candidate for prime minister in a two horse race but before the election, there was no anti-Corbyn effect when Labour’s policies were put next to its leader. But Corbyn has history with Europe. For Remainers, the policy makes no sense delivered by a life-long eurosceptic who nodded through Article 50.
Corbyn’s whole brand has been about his authencitity as a politician. It could be that voters just do not believe him. That would be a strange irony.
It could be a combination of reasons. People are more complicated than opinion polls allow. If so, Corbyn cannot just shift ground and go back to talking about his pet projects. His strategy as leader has been to look to his base for support when faced with a quarrelsome PLP. He makes sure at PMQs he gives some red meat to his base.
He may need to be a more traditional leader, to change the language he uses about Brexit, to get opinion to shift in his favour on Brexit. No rallies on Brexit. No songs about his glorious new policy.
Whatever they do, Labour had better start trying to work out why their position has not lifted them.
The leader’s strategy seems to be to bring down the government soon or at the latest when a deal comes before parliament, and somehow - gloss over the Fixed-term Parliament Act - force an election. If he does, he will have to fight the next election on Brexit. Anything else would be ridiculous. Today’s numbers do not point to victory.
Last time there was a snap election voters punished the person who called it. If Corbyn forces an early election (again, how?), it might be him who pays the price.
And even if Britain has technically left the European Union when we do vote, it may be that the volatile politics of Brexit have only just begun.
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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