There is one reason, and one reason alone, to be grateful for Brexit

September 6, 2019

by Martin Odoni

Whether you think the UK leaving the European Union is a good idea or a bad idea, whether you think it is short-term pain for long-term gain, or it is an impending disaster that no amount of compensation down-the-line can completely diminish, there is no escaping one irony about it. It is an irony that can only give pleasure to those on the left, while inducing despair for those of more centrist or right-leaning persuasions. But it is there, whether you like it or not; –

Brexit has probably kept Jeremy Corbyn in charge of the Labour Party.

Now, Corbyn’s distaste for the EU is hardly a secret, and his position since the Referendum has been noticeably ambivalent – although not, as some have complained, actually ambiguous. So for him to derive benefit from the Brexit process should hardly be a cause of surprise. But the suspicion is that, were it not for the chaos that Brexit has caused for the Conservative Party, especially since mid-2017, Corbyn would probably have lost the leadership by now. The Tory havoc, sometimes frightening, frequently hilarious, always incompetent, has presented the embattled Labour leader with countless opportunities to injure the Government, and more people need to give him his due; he has handled most of them both skilfully and effectively.

Don’t sneer, the facts are on Corbyn’s side

Anyone who wishes to sneer at that should consider that Jeremy Corbyn has now inflicted more defeats – forty-one – on sitting Governments than any other Leader of the Opposition in history, which is not bad for four years’ work as a supposed ‘failure’. The previous record, held until this week by Margaret Thatcher at the expense of the Jim Callaghan Government of the 1970s, took ninety days longer to achieve.

Corbyn - winningest LOTO of all time

Corbyn has a remarkable success record as Leader of the Opposition for one who is so often derided about it.

Of course, how much these defeats for the Tories are specifically down to Corbyn, and how effective he would be had Theresa May and Boris Johnson not been trapped in a Minority Government, are up for debate. (Although how much the Tory successes in the 1970s were down to Thatcher could be debated too.) But Corbyn can only play the hand he has been dealt, and on objective analysis, he has made far, far fewer mistakes than his detractors insist. He also played a huge role in forcing a Hung Parliament in the first place, so if a Minority Government is good luck for him, it is good luck he has made for himself.

Even if we therefore assume that Corbyn is in a position where it is difficult to fail, he has still made good use of that advantage, where previous Opposition leaders have not always been able to do so. Given how dreadfully malicious, cynical and unpopular the Tories were in the 2015 General Election, for instance, it still remains a source of profound bewilderment that Ed Miliband somehow still found a way of losing to them, and even of ending up with fewer seats than he had beforehand. Equally with Neil Kinnock; how in blazes did he not just lose the 1992 General Election to the uninspiring John Major, but actually allowed the Tories the largest popular vote count of any party since the Second World War, if all Kinnock’s reforms to the Labour Party over the previous nine years were really as ‘sensible’ as he forever claims, and given the Tories’ general exhaustion and division over the previous couple of years?

Hilarious Tory chaos

So it is quite unfair to dismiss Corbyn’s performance. But at the same time, it cannot be denied that the quietly-hilarious chaos of the current Tory Party is a real gift to Corbyn, and the cause of it, beyond any doubt, is Brexit. Since the Maastricht Treaty was debated in the early-1990s, converting the European Community into the European Union, relations with Europe have always been the Conservative Party’s greatest weakness. A fracture to be attacked and exploited by Opposition parties at will. Now that the ‘big move’ has been made, and the country has started the process of ending those relations, meltdown has finally begun. But what if it had not happened? Say David Cameron had scored a larger majority at the 2015 Election, and so had not needed to placate the fanatics in his party by calling a Referendum on EU membership. Or say the Referendum had ended in a Remain vote as expected, what then? Where would we be now?

The first point that has to be made in answering that is that what appeared to be a catastrophe for Corbyn – Brexit itself – was in fact a moment of saving grace for him. The ‘Chicken Coup’ by the Labour Right against Corbyn’s leadership in 2016 was attempted on the doubtful pretext that he had ‘failed to campaign effectively’ in that same Referendum. (That myth continues to feed the popular perception today that Corbyn has refused to commit to one policy on the EU or the other. In fact, he has been about as consistent on Brexit as the circumstances have allowed him to be; he has attempted with fair adherence to carry out a policy agreed upon by the Labour Party membership at Conference in 2017, which was to force and win a General Election, in order to carry out a ‘Soft Lexit’, so to speak, and when all options for making that happen were exhausted, to try and force a new Referendum vote. This has been broadly the course Corbyn has followed.)

Therefore, the 2016 coup appeared at first to indicate that Brexit was as much a curse for the Labour Left as it was for Cameron. While Corbyn clearly knew that something was about to happen even before Hilary Benn started rabble-rousing – hence he was able to build a new Shadow Cabinet within just two days of the previous den-of-thieves all resigning – there is also no doubt that at one point (subscr.) he was wavering under the bullying pressure Tom Watson and his henchmen were applying.

Brexit – the gift that keeps on giving

But since surviving the Chicken Coup, and with rather more ease than anybody expected, Brexit has been the gift to Corbyn that has kept on giving. The desperation to keep anti-EU hardliners placated led Theresa May to activate Article 50 at least a year earlier than she really needed to. Then, wanting to avoid the eternal problem of needing support from MPs with mutually-exclusive aims, May called a snap General Election three years early, over-confident that a Tory landslide would follow by default. This immediately took all the pressure off of Corbyn, as the rest of the Parliamentary Labour Party had to stop undermining him and get on-side, for fear of losing their seats in the Commons if they continued rebelling.

There were two upshots of this move, and both were bad for May. Firstly, no longer having to watch over his own shoulder for a couple of months, Corbyn was clearly very much in his element during the 2017 General Election, working at the head of the liveliest, most positive, and most invigorating political campaign the country had seen in twenty years. The other was that crude Tory and media attempts to attack Corbyn during the campaign were uniformly futile, demonstrating that they had not been doing the Labour leader any real harm at all over the previous eighteen months. All the damage to Corbyn’s position and reputation had in fact been inflicted by his own side, and now they had stopped doing it, he flourished. In fact, he was visibly loving every minute of the campaign. The result of that is now well-recorded.

Over the two years and more that have followed, the relentless dithering and blundering of the Government’s negotiators, the gridlock between the blind Brexit fanatics who want No Deal and the reluctant supporters of a ‘Soft Brexit’, the stubborn stupidity of May as she imposed unnecessary ‘red lines’ during the talks over a Withdrawal Agreement, the lukewarm deal she agreed with the EU that effectively undermined British sovereignty more than it restored, and the relentless logjam in Parliament, have all presented Corbyn with more ammunition than one leader can use, and what he has used, he has used well. Not only did he see off David Cameron, even as Cameron theatrically told him, “For heaven’s sake, man! Go!” Corbyn then saw off Theresa May this past summer. And he has now played a solid role in neutralising Boris Johnson’s leadership before it could begin, culminating this week in the effective self-castration of Johnson’s own position in trying to force through a No Deal Brexit. And Corbyn manages all this while still being routinely undermined by his own side.

Corbyn winning by default sometimes, but winning nonetheless

In a lot of circumstances, Corbyn has not had to do all that much, never more than just stand his ground and make valid points about how appallingly the Tories have handled Brexit since the day the Referendum was announced. It could be argued therefore that Corbyn’s performance has not been all that impressive, and the Tories are destroying themselves and each other. But this underlines the point; Brexit has proven an absolute God-send for the Labour Left.

Had it not been for the Referendum, had it not been for the vote to Leave, it is highly likely that Corbyn, fairly or otherwise, would have been hounded from the leadership by now. He would probably have had very little in the way of victories in Parliament to point to, there would have been no General Election in 2017 to give him a new lease-of-life, and the rebellions against him would probably have continued without a pause, and with rather more credibility than they have had over the last two years, in which the attackers from within the party, or from those who have broken away from the party, have largely looked thoroughly shambolic, if not completely disconnected from reality. People are twigging on to a particularly large elephant in the room; if the main argument for getting rid of Corbyn is that he is a ‘fool’, then there is no argument at all to be made, as the blundering of his opponents within the party has demonstrated that there are only fools on-hand to succeed him.

Corbyn has anti-EU fanatics to thank

In all likelihood, without Brexit – especially without the uncompromising desire of a small-but-vocal minority of foaming-mouthed fanatics for a total severance from the EU – Corbyn would have had to step down eventually due to the sheer exhaustion of being constantly ‘dogpiled’ by his fellow Labour MPs. Even though he would have retained mass support from members outside the PLP, there is only so much one man can take. As it is, the confidence he got from forcing a Hung Parliament in 2017 has allowed him subsequently to shrug off most of the predictable renewed backstabbing with an air of cool aplomb.

Meanwhile, given how much they seem to hate Corbyn, most Brexiteers really should pause and reflect that their own blinkered, tunnel-visioned fanaticism for No Deal is the main instrument that has kept him in the job for the last two-and-a-half years.

To these fanatics, a quick message; –

Jeremy Corbyn - thank you to Brexit

Were it not for Brexit, there is every likelihood that Corbyn would be gone by now.

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