Corbyn’s Brexit solution has one key problem — him
In her succinct response to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s open letter suggesting an interim government led by himself, Sarah Wollaston, the former Conservative MP who last week joined the Liberal Democrats, summed up the state of British politics when she called this option the “lesser of two evils.” At a time when the country needs — more than for a very long time — a reliable, competent and honest leader, the choice between Boris Johnson and Corbyn is a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Love him or loathe him, Corbyn’s latest maneuver has proved him to be a cannier politician than most of his critics would care to admit. He is exploiting to the very maximum the chaos that the Brexit debacle has inflicted on Britain and the out-of-step-with-reality prime minister that the Conservative Party has imposed on the country.
Not that long ago, the mention of Corbyn’s name in the same breath as occupying 10 Downing Street was sure to bring ridicule from the mainstream media and his opponents, and it is probably astonishing even to him that this option has a good chance of success, though the die is still far from being cast. The distrust of Corbyn personally, of his ability, of what he represents and of his equivocation over Brexit is hardly likely to disappear overnight. Prior to becoming Labour’s leader and hence leader of the opposition, even those who opposed him or just didn’t rate him thought of him as an honest and principled politician, albeit lacking sophistication and any understanding of modern complexities. Most of his critics would still stick to their view of him as a dogmatic and out-of-touch activist who falls short of the traits that make a true national leader, especially at a time of great crisis. However, even they must have been caught by surprise to witness his transformation from a backbencher with little charisma or charm and no leadership experience to — for better but mainly for worse — a rather single-mindedly ambitious politician with a streak of opportunism of the type that for decades he used to criticize; and that included anyone who led the country or his party.
Corbyn’s latest move shows that he has captured the current balance of power in British politics, in Parliament and the mood in many quarters of society. Although he is by no stretch of the imagination a Europhile, or even a Remainer, what might bring him to the coveted prime minister’s seat is leading the charge against the no-deal folly led by Johnson. In his appeal to MPs across Parliament who vehemently oppose no-deal, Corbyn has thrown down the gauntlet, asking them to install him as prime minister and suggesting that this might be the best, possibly the only, opportunity to stop the country falling off the cliff and into a disastrous limbo by leaving the EU without an agreement in a matter of weeks.
There is something in his letter for everyone, including his opponents in his own party, and even for those from other parties who, until now, would not have touched him with a barge pole. But the fear that this setup could end with Corbyn remaining as PM beyond an interim period to stop no-deal is a very real one, not only for those outside his party but for a substantial number of Labour MPs too. They are not impressed by his promise that his interim government would be time-limited until a general election was called, probably in early November. He would have the advantage of running an election campaign from a position of power, while enjoying the honeymoon period that most prime ministers benefit from. And, should he win, they might have to endure his premiership for the next five years. To entice them, Corbyn guarantees in his letter another public vote over Brexit, which would include the option to remain. It is almost a Brexit Christmas coming early, where there is a present for everyone in Santa Corbyn’s sack.
PM Johnson is doing half the work for him with his insistence on no-deal as the default option, which he is increasingly defending and promoting. It might be a tactical move to prompt Brussels to renegotiate, it might be strategic, or he might not differentiate one from the other, but it makes the Corbyn proposition increasingly acceptable, if not desirable. In one move, it could both prevent a no-deal Brexit and rid the nation of Johnson’s premiership before it succeeded in causing irreparable damage domestically and internationally.
What might bring Corbyn to the coveted prime minister’s seat is leading the charge against the no-deal folly led by Johnson.
Not everyone is swayed, however; most notably Jo Swinson, the newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. It might be a case of inexperience, albeit refreshingly honest, for her to instantly dismiss Corbyn’s plan. Her preference for legislation to request an extension of Article 50 followed by a second referendum provides an immediate and direct answer to the issue of Brexit, but has insufficient support among MPs.
Swinson and some Conservative MPs have said that, while they might agree with much of what Corbyn has said in his proposal, the sticking point is always going to be supporting him as prime minister. If the leader of the opposition genuinely cares about stopping a no-deal Brexit and ousting Johnson, he should support the idea of an interim government headed by a more unifying figure than himself — an interim prime minister with no ambition to stay at the helm for the long term, who would be able to concentrate on successfully steering the UK through the troubled waters of the protracted fiasco of attempting Brexit. Whether it is Harriet Harman or Kenneth Clarke, their mission would be to bring this sad episode in British history to a conclusion conducive to rebuilding relations with our European neighbors and healing the domestic rifts that have deepened as a result of Brexit.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg