The British EU-referendum is, as I explained before, the consequence of a continued rift within the Conservative Party. The ambiguous feeling towards Europe that the Tories nurture has been around for a number of decades and is one of the core reasons why the UK will hold a referendum on the continuation of its EU-membership on the 23rd of June. It is, to put it briefly, a party issue that became a national issue.
Less than two weeks before the referendum, the debate within the party resembles a civil war. The division lines between Brexiteers and Bremainers are all too obvious. On Thursday, we saw Amber Rudd, the energy minister, take off her gloves and furiously attack Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and one of the prime advocates of a British vote to leave the EU.
The aggressiveness of the debate has raised a number of concerns among party members but also observers. How can the Tory party reunite after June 23rd, given that at least half of its members will not like the end result? I am not sure whether it will be, as Iain Duncan Smith, the former labour minister and himself a Brexiteer, put it, be “business as usual” soon after the referendum. According to him, the party would bury its hatchet, independent of the result. At least, that’s what he said in mid-May at the Institute of Directors.
That’s all well and makes interesting reading, watching and thinking. The real question though is – where is Labour? With all these prominent Tories tearing each other to pieces in the final weeks of the referendum campaign, we haven’t really heard that much from the Labour party at all.
The issue here is Jeremy Corbyn, the backbencher that became party leader after the demise of Ed Miliband after the election defeat in 2015. Corbyn, a candidate deemed to be “unelectable” as a Prime Minister by wide parts of the establishment and the press, but also his own party, has his very own agenda.
On top of the list are topics such as nuclear disarmament, an end to austerity and the introduction of an NHS-style National Education Service. In March, Corbyn staged a huge anti-nuke demonstration at Trafalgar Square; as if the UK has nothing else to worry about than the question of whether it wanted to dispose of its nuclear fleet that’s been a source of great national pride for decades.
Some days later, I listened to Corbyn give a speech at the Annual Conference of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC). That event itself is kept in remembrance, but not because of the speech of Jeremy Corbyn. It is kept in remembrance because of the confession of John Longworth, the then director general of the BCC who indirectly recommended a vote for Brexit and who had to resign soon after, given that the BCC wants to stay neutral in this debate. At least, Longworth got the topic of the event right.
Corbyn in contrast gave his audience a full ride through his political universe. He touched upon nuclear arms, equality, justice and austerity, all in great length. Only towards the end of his speech did the Labour leader mention Europe though. It was not a huge statement, merely three sentences that closed with a cold-blooded endorsement in favour of remaining. Since then, it hasn’t gotten much better. Corbyn is either absent or not enthusiastic, a fact that friends of mine (members of the Labour Party) have nailed to his unofficial support for Brexit.
The Tories would love Jeremy Corbyn for this, but his party doesn’t. Quite the opposite, Labour voters tended to be strong supporters of the EU. Until now. “It’s devastating”, a friend said to me the other day, “you know, I voted for this guy.” Needless to say that this person is in favour of remaining and would want his party leader to be more present and vocal about the support of the continued membership in the European Union.
It remains to be seen whether other Labour figures such as Sadiq Khan, the new mayor of London, can pull the cart alone. If not, Jeremy Corbyn will be one of the people to blame for a British vote to leave. “I was a Jez fan initially, but ten months in it is clear Corbyn is doing Labour and the country no favours at all. If the Brexiteers get their way, his shameful non-leadership will be a big reason why”, another friend of mine posted on Facebook on Friday, obviously very disappointed.
The other day, a fellow journalist mentioned an interesting thought to me. Would Corbyn be doing what he does in order to get rid of David Cameron and thus increasing the likelihood for making some ground at the next general election in 2020? I shook my head in disbelief. Would you do that, as a national politician who feels a sense of responsibility to his country, his people and his party?
Which brings me back to the Tory party. I still struggle to believe that people such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are willing to see their country break into its constitutent parts, suffer a severe recession and be trapped in political limbo for five, maybe ten years, just to become Prime Minister?
I have been trying very hard but so far, I simply cannot get my head around it.