BREXIT UPDATE 36:  Corbyn Under Fire

The Conservative Leadership Contest

The results, published this week, of the latest Yougov poll of Tory members show 74 per cent in favour of Boris Johnson, while only 26 per cent support Jeremy Hunt.  The poll was taken before police were called to Johnson’s girlfriend’s flat by her neighbours in the early hours of Friday June 21; but, as Yougov points out:  “this commanding 48 per cent margin shows how far he would have to fall before this race even became close”.[1]   The domestic row story would not be enough to make any inroads into this huge lead.  Though the possibility of some massive act of self-destruction can never be ruled out in the case of Johnson, there is a general assumption that he will be Prime Minister by the end of July.

Johnson has been making wildly contradictory and irresponsible comments about Brexit in interviews and speeches across the country.   On Tuesday (June 25), he agreed with a Talk Radio interviewer that he will take the UK out of the EU on October 21 “do or die, come what may”[2].  But in Bournemouth on Thursday (June 27) Johnson said — in reply to an interviewer who asked him “you told me yesterday that there was ‘a million to one chance’ of a no-deal Brexit.  Do you stand by that percentage? – “Yes, though I’m not a bookie”.[3]   However, an actual firm of bookies consulted by the Daily Express said they were offering somewhat shorter odds:  7 to 4.   The Daily Express calculated: “they believe a no deal outcome to be about 574,428 times more likely than Mr Johnson does”. [4]

Johnson insists he can easily arrange a deal, repeatedly citing what appears to be a plan based on the Malthouse Compromise (see Brexit Update 35) – an implementation period during which he will negotiate a Free Trade Agreement  that will solve the Northern Ireland backstop problem.    On the one hand, he plays to the hard-line Brexiteer Tory membership by insisting that “come what may, do or die” he will deliver Brexit on October 31; he has even refused to rule out proroguing Parliament in order to force through a No Deal Brexit(another difference between him and Hunt, who has said proroguing Parliament is not an option).[5]  But on the other hand, Johnson blithely and breezily seeks to allay fears among the general public about a no-deal Brexit (concerns that he airily dismissed in Bournemouth by assuring Brits that, whatever happens, they will still get their Mars Bars) by claiming that he is virtually certain to negotiate a deal by October 31.

If, as is widely expected, Johnson does not succeed in a negotiating a new deal by October 31, he will be forced to make good on his promise to leave without a deal.  In that scenario, as I indicated at the end of Brexit Update 34, there is a growing likelihood and expectation that, as a no-deal Brexit looms, a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s government will be brought by Jeremy Corbyn and that enough Tory MPs will vote against their own government to bring it down and trigger a General Election.

This expectation of a General Election in the next few months seems to be what lies behind an escalation of attacks on Corbyn by the Labour right-wing.  These attacks, led by the Shadow Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, are on two main fronts: issues that have nothing to do with each other but have become more and more intertwined: Brexit and antisemitism.

The Brexit issue

At a recent Shadow Cabinet meeting (June 19), a briefing document was circulated that argued that:

“it is not obvious, from the evidence of local elections and Peterborough, that a more ‘pro Remain’ position from Labour would in itself win back voters currently lost to the Liberal Democrats , or in a numerical enough way that would offset Leave voters in many of the key marginals….there are more target and defensive seats in the Midlands and North of England that voted Leave”.

Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader, has responded by renewing his insistence that Labour should turn itself into a Remain party giving full backing to a second referendum.  In a message to “Future Britain”, an anti-Corbyn “centrist” group of Labour MPs and peers that he has founded, he has written: “The majority of Labour’s members and voters are Remain.  Our hearts are Remain and our values are Remain”.[6]  Such has been the clamour for a second referendum from the Labour right that it has even won over close Corbyn allies such as the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell (who has always been a Europhile).

But, despite all the pressure, Corbyn has refused so far to go beyond his position of a) putting first a General Election and, if he becomes Prime Minister, the negotiation with the EU of his own alternative deal; and b) also supporting a public vote on any deal, including a Labour Party deal.  If the deal being voted on in a second referendum is a “hard Tory Brexit”, then Labour would back Remain; but of course if the choice is between Labour’s deal and Remain, then Labour would campaign for its own deal. This position would make a second referendum contingent on any deal that is first agreed with the EU and then passed by Parliament; as Corbyn has said, this is “some way off”.[7]

More than 25 Labour MPs have written a letter to Corbyn urging him not to go “full Remain”; the letter argues that “a commitment to a second referendum would be toxic to our bedrock Labour voters”.[8]   And Chelley Ryan – who is the Michelle Ryan who features in Alex Nunn’s acclaimed book The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power as the person who, in May 2015, initiated a petition calling for an anti-austerity candidate to stand in the Labour leadership contest[9] —  has written an “Open Letter to Tom Watson” which so far has garnered nearly 1,800 signatures from grassroots Labour Party members (including me).  The letter takes issue with Watson’s claim to speak for the entire Labour membership, pointing out that the members have “very complex and diverse views on this difficult subject”.  Ryan continues:

“If we become the full blown Remain party you aspire to, we will be just another Metropolitan Liberal Party that holds Leave voters in contempt…..There is no other party which has put forward a sensible compromise position on Brexit, and we believe we must not sacrifice this position based on unreliable analysis at a very unpredictable time.  We claim to be the party of the many, however that claim will sound hollow to the 52% who voted leave if we become an ardent remain party as per your wishes….You take these voters for granted at your peril, our peril and the peril of millions of ordinary struggling people who desperately need a radical transformative Labour Government…..Labour is not a Leave or Remain party.  We should not take sides as though this is a football match.”[10]

The antisemitism issue

And the always simmering accusations of antisemitism have predictably surged up again, this time in relation to the Chris Williamson case.

The Labour MP Chris Williamson had been suspended from the Labour Party at the end of February as a result of pressure on the Labour Party by Jewish communal leaders and the Labour right, after footage was published of a speech he had given to Labour activists in which he had said in relation to the antisemitism row: “we’ve backed off far too much, we’ve given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic”. [11]  This was claimed by his opponents to be the final straw in a “pattern of behaviour”, none of which, however, was antisemitic; at worst, Williamson was at times thoughtless and ill-advised.[12]  The so-called “offence” for which he was specifically suspended is the public expression of an opinion that many (including myself) consider to be true.  Indeed, the Labour Party’s repeated capitulation to the “Labour antisemitism crisis” lobby in the Chris Williamson case is, ironically, itself a confirmation of his assertion; ground is constantly given to try to placate the Jewish communal leaders – a strategy that only leads to more attacks.

On Wednesday, June 26, Williamson’s case was heard by a three-person panel from Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), who lifted Williamson’s suspension after giving him a formal warning.  There was immediate uproar from Jewish communal leaders, who claimed Williamson had only been reinstated because he represents a marginal seat at a time when there is a likelihood of a general election in the near future.[13]  In its report on the issue, the Jewish Chronicle failed to mention that – as Skwawkbox points out — the panel did not have a pro-Corbyn majority and acted on the advice of independent barristers.[14] 90 Labour MPs and peers wrote to Corbyn demanding that he intervene to overturn Williamson’s reinstatement – as Skwawkbox points out, this request contradicts past accusations against Corbyn’s office of interference in the party’s disciplinary proceedings.[15]

As a result of the outcry  — and an email from one of the members of the three-person NEC panel, Keith Vaz, bizarrely challenging his own decision – two days later, on Friday (June 28), Williamson was re-suspended, pending an investigation by the National Executive Committee on July 9.[16]   There are also reports that right-wing Labour MPs are reported to be intending to use a little-known clause in their Standing Orders to interfere in the disciplinary process in order to vote against the reinstatement of Williamson at the next meeting  of the Parliamentary Labour Party.  But it is unclear whether they can manage to do this. [17] According to the Morning Star, Corbyn is expected to face a showdown on the Brexit issue on July 9 as well.[18]

And yet another attempt to undermine Corbyn has been made by anonymous civil servants who are behind a report in the Times that he is frail in health and losing his memory.  Corbyn has hit back very strongly, branding the Times story “a farrago of nonsense” and calling for an inquiry to find those responsible for it.  As the Labour Party is indicating, these fraudulent claims appear to be a transparently desperate ploy by an Establishment fearful that an imminent General Election could bring Corbyn to power.[19]

And the latest news today (Monday July 1) is that the Speaker of the House of  Commons, John Bercow, has not selected for debate a cross-party amendment that would have blocked the government from spending money without Parliament’s consent in the event of a no-deal Brexit. As Stephen Bush writes in the New Statesman, this increases the chances of either No Deal or a General Election.[20]

[1] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2019/06/25/incredible-rise-and-fall-and-rise-boris-johnson

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRHfgF0l1Jc

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0L80u4n4bGI 18’05”

[4] https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1146206/brexit-news-boris-johnson-no-deal-odds-million-to-one

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2019/jul/01/tory-leadership-latest-news-boris-johnson-hunt-proposes-6bn-no-deal-bail-out-for-farmers-and-fishing-industry-live-news

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/jun/22/tom-watson-labour-must-back-remain-to-survive

For the briefing document see:

https://skwawkbox.org/2019/06/19/evidence-emerging-from-shadcab-meeting-makes-clear-msm-lab-remain-shift-claims-were-pure-spin/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/30/soft-brexit-corbyn-labour-second-referendum-some-way-off-backs

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48694223

[9]  

Alex Nunns, The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, Or Books, 2016, pp. 74-6 and 303.

[10] https://turningthetideblog.wordpress.com/2019/06/21/open-letter-to-tom-watson-about-brexit/

[11] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/feb/27/labour-suspends-chris-williamson-over-antisemitism-remarks

[12] Nowhere in this litany of Williamson’s sins compiled by the Jewish Chronicle is there any example of antisemitism: https://www.thejc.com/comment/analysis/what-exactly-has-labour-mp-chris-williamson-done-to-offend-jews-here-s-a-long-list-1.485890

[13] https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/outrage-as-labour-lifts-suspension-of-mp-chris-williamson-1.485826

[14] https://skwawkbox.org/2019/06/26/chris-williamson-reinstated-to-labour-whip/

[15] https://skwawkbox.org/2019/06/27/mps-and-peers-say-we-condemn-political-interference-in-disciplinaries-except-when-we-want-it/

[16] https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/chris-williamson-labour-nec_uk_5d16235ee4b082e5536836d0

[17] https://skwawkbox.org/2019/06/28/right-wing-mps-to-use-plp-standing-orders-to-bypass-disciplinary-process-and-attack-williamson/

[18] https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/mps-hounding-chris-williamson-are-bullies-prominent-trade-unionist-says

[19] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48813656

[20] https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2019/07/john-bercows-decision-increases-chances-early-election-or-no-deal-brexit