Now that the European Union has snubbed Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, at its Salzburg summit in Austria, Boris Johnson is not the only British politician who hopes to use Brexit as a stepping stone to No 10 Downing Street, the deceptively modest looking official prime ministerial residence in London.
With the ruling Conservative Party’s annual conference scheduled to open in Birmingham on Sunday, and seven months to go before Britain and the EU must part company, the Opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is angling for a snap general election. He hopes that given public dissatisfaction with Mrs May’s bungling, the vote will bring his Labour Party to power. It’s a paradox of British politics that Mr Corbyn’s popularity, such as it is, is entirely among rank and file party workers in the country. The Labour elite at Westminster dislike him quite as much as the Conservatives do.
Mr Corbyn is also under intense pressure from his party’s Jewish lobby which accuses him of being anti-Jewish and anti-Israel, seemingly not distinguishing between the two. Others regard him as a dangerous radical.
But there is no easy mechanism through which he can be sacked, and that enabled him boldly to tell a rally in Liverpool on the eve of his party’s annual conference: “If this Government can’t deliver, then I say to Theresa May: the best way to settle this is to have a general election.” The conference voted in favour of a resolution that says: “If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”
The last clause could refer to another referendum. While Labour has never taken the option of a second referendum off the table, many delegates fear that Mr Corbyn does not fully back the idea. Well might they wonder for Mr Johnson and Mrs May, whose posturing this column described last week, are not the only politicians who seem to move with the wind. Mr Corbyn is a veteran Eurosceptic. In 1975, he opposed Britain joining the EU’s predecessor, the European Community. He now says that only another general election will allow Britain to negotiate its future relations with the EU.
John McDonnell, the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer (meaning the man who will become finance minister if Labour comes to power), says that in his opinion any such vote should be on the terms of a Brexit deal rather than on staying on in Europe. He feels Labour would continue to respect the 2016 referendum in which the British voted by 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent to leave the European Union. But does Mr McDonnell speak for his leader?
Meanwhile, a battle is being waged for Labour’s soul. The shadowy Momentum group of grassroots Labour workers, established to shore up Mr Corbyn’s leadership in the country, has been torn between pro-European instincts and loyalty to the chief. He is heir to the tradition which regards the founding principles of the EU as anathema to Socialism. While the Momentum organisation itself is strongly pro-European, some of its spokesmen say they would do nothing to jeopardise its main goal of electing a truly Socialist government in Britain.
To that end, the party conference made some significant announcements that would have warmed the heart of that old Labour warrior and councillor for St Pancras in London for 14 years – the late V K Krishna Menon. These plans include schemes to force all large firms to give shares to their workers netting them up to £500 a year each; proposals to scrap laws allowing private landlords to evict tenants without giving a reason; and a ban on the creation of certain kinds of privileged schools in England.
Brexit was among eight issues that were chosen for debate at the conference in Liverpool after a ballot by Labour members and trade unions. The others were Palestine, the economy, housing, schools, government contracts, in-work poverty and justice for the Windrush generation. The last refers to the immigrants who were invited to the UK between 1948 and 1971 from Caribbean countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. The name derives from the ship MV Empire Windrush, which docked in Tilbury, Essex, in 1948, bringing nearly 500 Jamaicans to the UK. In a travesty of British justice, the descendants of these West Indian migrants who were welcomed when they arrived are themselves nowadays often refused citizenship or even residency rights.
Some of Mr Corbyn’s Jewish critics would say he is more mindful of socialist sensibilities than of the feelings of Jews. The lobby received powerful support this week from the former Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, who said Labour must “unanimously, unequivocally and immediately” adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of what constitutes anti-Semitism. He was speaking at the Jewish Labour Movement’s annual conference on the eve of his own party’s Liverpool conference. Mr Brown said he was not appearing as “some sort of backseat driver”, but had to speak out about anti-Semitism because equality and solidarity was “what the Labour Party is all about, or should be all about”. The point is that Mr Corbyn’s real offence seems to be his strong support for the Palestinian cause which makes him sharply critical of many aspects of Israel’s territorial actions. If he doesn’t seem especially sympathetic to Jews, that is an attitude that runs through the British working and lower middle classes.
Europeans see all this inter and intra party wrangling as further evidence of Britain’s inability to come to grips with the most important challenge of the day. They will not consider any form of association that does not fully respect the four freedoms (of capital, goods, services and labour) on which the association of 28 nations is based. Mrs May’s contention that having rejected her plan, the EU should now come up with an alternative cuts no ice. Brussels retorts that it didn’t seek a divorce. The UK did. So it’s up to the UK to propose acceptable terms.
While this standoff with the EU continues, Britain is awash with rumours that Mrs May’s team has begun contingency planning for a snap vote in November to save both Brexit and her job. This is vehemently denied by her Brexit minister, Dominic Raab, who dismisses any talk of a fresh election as being fit only “for the birds.” He said Britain will not “flit from plan to plan like some sort of diplomatic butterfly.”
What does seem certain is that while Mr Johnson and other Conservative rebels will bring pressure on Mrs May to do a deal with the EU, they will stop short of actually forcing her to step down. That would mean immediate elections and a possible Labour victory. No one seems to want Mr Corbyn as prime minister, not even many of his own party’s leading lights.
Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.