Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Why lacklustre Jeremy Corbyn, stuck in a 1970s Eurosceptic rut, may yet be Boris' secret weapon

Labour leader's refusal to commit fully to the Remain cause damages his electoral credibility, says Alban Maginness

Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn responds to Boris Johnson in the House of Commons yesterday
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn responds to Boris Johnson in the House of Commons yesterday
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

Jeremy Corbyn, as the leader of the Opposition at Westminster, is a pivotal player in the gathering political and constitutional crisis that will soon turn into one of the greatest storms to engulf the British political landscape. The question to be asked is: is Corbyn an asset, or a liability, in the crucial battle against Boris Johnson?

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, buoyed up by his outstanding leadership victory, has lost no time in establishing, in swashbuckling fashion, his authority by proroguing Parliament for five weeks.

This "constitutional outrage", as the Speaker John Bercow has described it, severely constrains the amount of parliamentary time available to MPs to resist a no-deal Brexit.

In proroguing Parliament the Prime Minister has thrown down the gauntlet to all the Opposition parties, as well as his own opponents within the Conservative Party.

The civil war that has been waged within that party for the past three decades has, at least for the moment, given victory to the Brexit right-wingers and left the pro-Remainers in the party in a wretched state of despondency and confusion.

Their loyalty to the Tory party and Government is clearly torn and, while some will undoubtedly co-operate with the opposition parties to prevent a no-deal Brexit, they are most reluctant to support Jeremy Corbyn, especially if that means handing him the keys to No.10 Downing Street.

But is the old, rather dull Jeremy Corbyn up to the job of opposing the brash and energetic Boris Johnson with his reckless but exciting Brexiteering, and can he really stop a no-deal Brexit occurring on October 31?

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To his credit Corbyn has at least agreed a joint strategy with the other Opposition parties to avert a no-deal Brexit.

If successful, this strategy would force the Prime Minister to ask the EU for a further Brexit delay beyond October 31.

The legal position is that the UK leaves the European Union on October 31 with or without a deal.

In order to prevent that happening by default it is necessary for Parliament to pass a law to change that position.

The device MPs hope to use is to bring about an emergency debate, which Speaker John Bercow is certain to approve.

Thus, by controlling the parliamentary timetable through calling an emergency debate, MPs could determine legislation aimed at stopping the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit. As the Opposition leaders jointly declared: "To act together to find ways to prevent no-deal."

If this approach fails then Corbyn will move to bring the Government down by way of a vote of no confidence.

If successful, he sees himself as a caretaker Prime Minister of an interim Government that would block a no-deal Brexit.

This could be a rainbow coalition, including the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Also, this would allow Corbyn to call a general election.

In that election Corbyn would specifically call for a public vote on the terms of leaving the EU.

He would also include a Remain vote option in such a referendum.

The problem for the Labour Party in any imminent general election is their lack of clarity on the vexed issue of European membership.

Jeremy Corbyn himself is still equivocal on EU membership. Despite that fact that his closest allies, namely John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, have both publicly declared that they will campaign to remain in Europe, he has still not committed himself to that position.

He has merely said that he would campaign for Remain if the alternative was a no-deal Brexit.

This is hardly the strong Remain position that the Labour Party has gradually, though unofficially, moved to over the past three years.

Their party conference (if one does actually take place in September) will most likely confirm a pro-Remain position as official party policy.

But it should be borne in mind that Jeremy Corbyn has been consistently Eurosceptic since the UK joined the EEC in 1973.

His present reluctance to adopt a Remain position will inevitably damage Labour's position with the electorate.

It will send the wrong message to the British electorate at a time when they demand certainty on the issue of Europe. An equivocal position will not win votes and any election that takes place will require the Labour leader himself to be clear on this issue.

If he does not adopt a recognisable pro-Remain position the danger for Labour is that they will shed thousands of votes to the enthusiastically pro-Remain parties, such as the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

With such a lacklustre leader as Corbyn, still stuck in a 1970s' Eurosceptic time-warp, Labour will have an uphill struggle to win any general election.

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