Railroaded into Opposition
What does opposition look like, in party conference terms? I don’t mean the just-been-in-government opposition where Labour found itself in 2010 – when Ed Miliband was elected leader in Manchester and when businesses and lobbyists crammed the bar of the Midland Hotel, the imprint of power still visible on the chintzy sofas. Nor the expectant opposition of last year, in that same city, where shadow cabinet ministers talked about getting back their government cars and their first 100 days in power.
What a long time ago September 2014 seems now for Labour. As the party regroups on the Brighton waterfront, it is a deep-in-the-wilderness opposition that engulfs them, like a heavy sea fret. In the bars, lobbyists will be outnumbered by unionists and Marxists. Years ago, when Labour was in government, Richard Branson ordered a suspension in engineering works so that his Virgin Trains could ferry the powerful to Manchester. This year, Southern Rail happens to be also carrying out engineering works, with a reduced train service and a replacement bus in operation between London and the South Coast on 27 September. There is no sign of a suspension in the works, especially not, perhaps, for the man who wants a People’s Railway. This is what deep opposition looks like.
Jeremy Corbyn’s first conference as leader is all about not frightening the horses. John McDonnell said that he and Corbyn were “not deficit deniers”, and that a Labour government would, like George Osborne, work towards a surplus. He indicated that there would be a free vote on, rather than a three-line whip opposing, any military action in Syria. Corbyn has made clear that Trident will not be a unity-breaker by appointing pro-deterrent MPs into his defence team. His plan for rail renationalisation is already a compromise.
Corbyn seems to be resolving his dilemma, over whether he should choose pragmatism or authenticity, by settling on the side of pragmatism. When he addressed the Parliamentary Labour Party nearly two weeks ago, this was, to some MPs present, quite clearly the first time Corbyn had spoken to a room of people who didn’t wholeheartedly agree with him. One senior MP told me that Corbyn had had, until that PLP meeting, the “ears of a dictator” – they had never heard dissent. The problem for Corbyn is, if he remains authentic to the identity that made him elected leader by 250,000 people, he alienates the rest of the country and the majority of his MPs. On the other hand, if he becomes more pragmatic and collegiate, his very USP is destroyed.
But in the interests of appearing dignified and having a united shadow cabinet, Corbyn has already lost his edge on the raw politics. When the revelations about David Cameron from the Lord Ashcroft book emerged last week, Corbyn rightly kept himself above the lurid allegations about a pig’s head. Yet the more substantial and serious claims from Ashcroft, that Cameron knew about the peer’s non-dom status earlier than he claimed, was an issue that the Leader of the Opposition should have been all over. Instead, Nicola Sturgeon was on the TV saying there were questions the Prime Minister needed to answer. Scotland’s First Minister had walked into the space left vacant by Corbyn. This was, you might say, what opposition looks like.
Labour resistance shrinks
So what do you do if you are an MP in Labour’s resistance? If Corbyn is being collegiate and allowing free votes on Syria, do you wait for the polls to fall spectacularly before mounting a coup? Even the most staunch resistance fighter is preparing for Corbyn to have a minor bounce in the local elections next May. Then the boundary changes, when the number of parliamentary seats will be reduced to 600, have to be drawn up by October 2018. If individual MPs move against the leader between now and then they are vulnerable to deselection under those changes. The brave talk of coups, which I heard back in July, is melting away.
High point of Baker’s book
The defeat of Norman Baker, the former Lib Dem minister, at the election has certainly deprived the House of Commons of colour. His newly published memoirs, Against the Grain, remind us that he was one of the least biddable politicians – even by Lib Dem standards. But I wonder what his former boss, Theresa May, would make of his book? Baker reproduces a text message that May sent to him last year, just as he was about to go on Newsnight to argue for a nuanced approach to banning legal highs. In a message which must be typical of the tense exchanges between Conservative and Lib Dem coalition ministers, May’s text read: “Please remember our conversation about this … The Government’s position is that we are looking at tougher action, not that we are looking at licensing head shops. Theresa.” The Home Secretary is poised to introduce her controversial Investigatory Powers Bill – dubbed the Snoopers’ Charter – to Parliament this autumn, but perhaps she should be worried about her own communications being intercepted.
Kelly death still resonates
Baker also uses his book to repeat his doubts about the circumstances of the death of the government weapons inspector David Kelly. Criticising those who dismiss his views as conspiracy theories, Baker writes: “No doubt Galileo would have been called a conspiracy theorist if the term had existed in 16th-century Italy. Instead his theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun led to him being found ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’ and he was forced to recant.”
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