Is Corbyn handing Brexit to Boris Johnson?

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When British voters go to the polls Thursday, it probably will be their last chance to stop Brexit. If they don’t, Jeremy Corbyn will bear much of the blame.

Wait – isn’t the Labour Party leader running to oust the man actually driving the UK toward Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson? Yes, but polls show Johnson’s Conservatives holding on to a double-digit lead over Labour. That’s remarkable, considering the sorry mess Tory leaders have made of Brexit over the last three years. 

If Johnson has the electoral wind at his back, it’s not because he’s so mesmerizing. It’s mainly because of Corbyn’s epic unpopularity with UK voters. A mere 22 percent approve of Labour’s chief, while 58 percent say he’s doing badly. Thirty-six percent approve of Johnson, and 43 percent rate him negatively.

By choosing as their leader a hardline socialist whose views seem frozen in the early 1980s, Labour may have handed this election – and Brexit – to Johnson. That’s a high price to pay for indulging left-wing activists’ demands for doctrinal purity and penchant for anti-capitalist posturing. (Democrats, are you paying attention?)

In a rightside-up universe, the Tories wouldn’t stand a chance of winning their fourth straight election. They’ve been in power for nearly a decade, presiding over an unpopular austerity drive as well as a string of abortive attempts to engineer Britain’s divorce from the European Union. And while this election is largely a referendum on Johnson’s vow to “get Brexit done,” it’s not clear that’s what most Britons want. In fact, a NatCen Research poll last month found that by 45 percent to 40 percent, UK voters prefer to remain in the EU.  

The Brexit fiasco began when Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, running for reelection in 2015, rashly promised to hold a national referendum on Brexit. He did so not because his party was clamoring for Brexit, but to blunt the growing appeal of the anti-immigrant, anti-Europe UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Few were prepared for the shocking result of the 2016 referendum: A 52-48 majority in favor of leaving the EU. A mortified Cameron promptly resigned, handing power to Theresa May, who, though a remainer, vowed to respect the majority’s will. Her dutiful but maladroit attempts to negotiate a “soft Brexit” with Brussels thrice died in parliament, torpedoed by a motley coalition of Tory leavers led by Johnson as well as remainers in Labour and smaller parties.

The hapless May yielded to Johnson last July. After parliament forced Johnson to seek an extension of negotiations with the EU, the prime minister called for a snap election aimed at breaking the Brexit stalemate once and for all. 

Given the Tory train wreck on Brexit, how could Johnson possibly be so far ahead? Despite a Trump-like reputation for making things up, the shaggy-haired Prime Minister at least knows what he wants: Britain out of the EU by Jan. 31, 2020. Corbyn, in contrast, is a longtime euroskeptic whose stance on Brexit is decidedly murky.  

As an old school socialist internationalist, he views the EU as a bulwark of “liberal” or free market values at odds with his vision for nationalizing key industries and expanding the state’s power to direct the economy for the proletariat’s benefit. What’s more, Brexit divides Labour along class and geographical lines. Urban elites and suburbanites are adamantly opposed, but many working-class voters in the North are firmly in the leave camp.

So while the Tories have purged dissenting MPs and coalesced around Brexit, Labour radiates ambivalence on the election’s central question. Corbyn’s tortuous way of straddling his party’s Brexit rift is to promise he’ll negotiate a gentler separation with more residual ties to the EU, then hold a second “leave or remain” referendum that would give voters a chance to kill the deal he will have just made.

At bottom, though, Corbyn himself is the issue. While he inspires cult-like fervor among young left-wing activists (just as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders does here), he’s too extreme and dogmatic for many Labour MPs and middle-class voters. He’s also come under fire again from UK Jewish leaders for tolerating anti-Semitism in Labour.  

According to Lord Ashcroft, a UK pollster, a quarter of Labour voters think a Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister would be worse for Britain than Brexit. “Nearly half of all Remain voters – including 41 percent of 2017 Labour remainers – said they would like to remain in the EU with a PM other than Corbyn,” he notes.

Could Labour turn things around in the last few days before the vote? Optimists point to the 2017 election, when May blew a 21-point lead and lost her majority. Labour’s unexpected gains in that contest probably prevented Corbyn’s ouster. This time around, however, the stakes are clearer and Conservative inroads into traditional working-class bastions, thanks mainly to Brexit, don’t bode well for Labour. In addition, Labour is losing ground to the Scottish National Party, which wants to stay in Europe, but also another vote on leaving the UK. 

The most realistic hope for staving off Brexit is that the Tories fail to win an outright majority, resulting in a hung parliament. That would set off intense horse-trading for the support of smaller parties (the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish National Party and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru) needed to form a coalition government. Given Corbyn’s unpopularity, however, it’s conceivable Labour couldn’t find suitable partners unless it promises to pick a more mainstream leader. 

That scenario, unlikely as it seems, would be the best outcome of all. It would stop Brexit, and give Labour a chance to break out of Corbyn’s constricted circle of socialist orthodoxy and become a serious governing party once again.  

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Tags Bernie Sanders Boris Johnson Boris Johnson Brexit Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour Party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn Theresa May United Kingdom Withdrawal from the European Union

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