At last Wednesday’s (September 14) prime minister’s question time (PMQs) Jeremy Corbyn heard a sound that up until then had been absent from the Commons chamber – the sound of cheering from behind.
He had become used to jeering from the benches opposite. And silence around but it didn’t throw him off course. He just got on with it.
Now on the eve of the announcement for the Labour leadership Theresa May handed him a gift – a return to grammar schools. This has all the makings of a touchstone policy that can unite Labour, upset some of her own MPs and provide a platform that will bring a short lived ‘political honeymoon’ to an even quicker end.
I’m always surprised at how politicians believe their own propaganda. She is prime minister because her predecessor, David Cameron, blew it in spectacular fashion. He too made the same mistake after winning an, albeit small majority, at the last general election.
This was compounded in his head when he was on the winning side of the independence referendum in Scotland. He patently believed in his own invincibility – lacking as he did the voice that reminds leaders;
‘Memento mori,’ roughly speaking, ‘Remember that thou art a man’.
Gove, Johnson and Leadsom didn’t know how to maximise their chances following their win. The campaign had played to prejudices and untruths with rhetoric devoid of rational argument. And with no plan on hand they appeared to be so poleaxed by the result they had to go into a darkened room to recover.
Cameron had no choice but to stand down as prime minister. Calling the referendum on EU membership was foolish in the extreme. We’ve had decades of blame shifting by the right-wing popular press and by euro-sceptic Tory politicians. Pre-cooking an already hostile environment gave those wanting out an easier ride.
We know how it went. NHS underfunding then blame the EU for taking our money when it could be invested in health care. A claim abandoned once the result was known.
We would be able to take back control of our borders despite the fact that we still had passport controls. Outers blamed the EU for the fact that our steel industry couldn’t be saved. We couldn’t bail out so called dying companies but we can bail out banks. And the most mendacious of all blaming immigration for all the woes on housing, education and wages. The Outers peddled their blatant anti-immigration propaganda heightening tensions to fever pitch.
As it was we were already semi-detached from the EU’s overarching project with its membership of the euro and the Schengen agreement. Outers knew they weren’t giving the full story. They knew they were playing on emotions and not rationality.
Of course reality will out. If you didn’t catch Evan Davis interviewing Daniel Hannan Conservative MEP, it’s worth watching.
Davis becomes totally exasperated by Hannan’s argument that we remain in the ‘common market’ for the free flow of labour. Evans with head in hand put it to Hannan that one of the main planks of those wanting out was that immigration would be cut. I don’t think Davis was being unduly theatrical here it was just that the penny had dropped. Broadcasters hadn’t tested the Outers claims rigorously enough.
We can hear Davis’ voice of despair when Hannan replied that the UK would have to accept free movement in order to remain in the ‘European common market’.
“The idea of staying within a common market but outside the political integration, I think that is feasible,” said Mr Hannan.
Evan Davis then asked whether that meant the free movement of people between a post-Brexit Britain and the EU? And Hannan’s reply, “It means free movement of labour.”
His argument is perfectly understandable for a free marketer. Bosses used to rely on a pool of unemployment to keep down wages now they had a greater pool of skilled labour from the Eastern European countries to call on.
So now we have a prime minister – there by default when her opponent pulled out – being handed a free pass by sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party to consolidate her premiership.
Instead of taking the fight to the Conservative government, when the Tories were at their most vulnerable they picked up their boxing gloves, donned on their hoodies and propelled Owen Smith MP for Pontypridd into the ring for a pummelling.
They should have left their hoodies behind. No one can strike a pose in an oversized coat with the hood up quite like Paralympic swimmer, Ellie Robinson. She was the genuine thing and unlike those Labour MPs she went on to win.
When the result is announced Labour MPs have got to shape up. We’ve got to stop this internal fight and unite.
This article first appeared in Tribune September 15.
Joy Johnson writes in a personal capacity.