After last year’s General Election, the Tories were in an all-round shambles, especially on the subject of Britain and the EU. Initially, Labour was content to follow Theresa May’s motley rabble, but by the end of the year, as I noted at the time, she was making a mess of Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn had the opportunity - indeed, the necessity - to show leadership.
As ever, J K Galbraith’s definition of leadership bears revisiting: “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common; it was their willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership”. Brexit is now the major anxiety of the British people.
Someone must lead, and that person is not a Tory: it is all the cabinet can do to turn up for a meeting and not fall out with one another. Having a clear and agreed position on Brexit is out of the question for them. It was with that background that Corbyn made his pitch today on a visit to Coventry. And as the Guardian has reported, he “has attempted to outflank the Conservatives with the business community by placing the customs union firmly on the table if Labour took over Brexit negotiations, triggering a cautious welcome from industry representatives”. So much for Labour being anti-business. And there was more.
“In a move that resulted in praise from the CBI and Institute of Directors, as well as the former Tory chancellor George Osborne, the Labour leader said his party wanted ‘a new, comprehensive UK-EU customs union’ after Brexit … The customs union policy would prevent Britain from signing independent trade deals, but Corbyn insisted that the country should still be involved in EU-wide negotiations”.
In realty, the UK does not have the resources to embark on independent trade deals. This much-heralded Brexit dividend is almost certainly another Tory chimera. And Jezza pushed one or two craftily populist buttons as he went, telling the audience he was “not prepared to ask the British people to eat chlorinated chicken”.
Onlookers noted the positive business reception, while not reacting well to the Tories’ yah-boo spoiling tactics. “Whatever you think of Labour's Brexit shift, the Tory reaction is staggering: ‘A cynical attempt to play politics with our country's future’. Remind me again, just why did the Tories promise an EU referendum?” asked one Tweter.
Mark Devonport of BBC Northern Ireland noted that Jezza “got” the necessity of keeping the Good Friday Agreement in place, which meant no hard border with the Republic, while Nick Eardley of BBC Scotland told “Corbyn says Labour open to supporting some EU agencies after Brexit like Euratom. ‘It makes no sense for the UK to abandon EU agencies and tariff-free trading rules that have served us well,’ he says”.
This was all positive news. And as for Frank Field pretending - in his dreams - that Labour taking this position was “ratting” on its voters, Mike Smithson of Political Betting had some news for him. “Latest Brexit tracker LAB voters … Brexit right 25% … Brexit wrong 69%”. This will also appeal to swing voters - and indeed, anyone who craves leadership.
The Tories have merely squabbled. They have failed to lead. Corbyn has now shown leadership. He has given his side, and many others, hope. That is all he needed to do.