Nothing lasts forever. Soon enough this peasouper of disbelief will lift and we will look upon Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as another chapter of political history written in prose. But for the moment, the aura of magic realism still hangs like a surreal shroud over his story.
His debut on a conference dais as the unlikeliest leader of anything since... but no, let’s not flail about for some trite comic analogy involving Iain Duncan Smith’s chairmanship of Mensa, or Vernon Kaye’s shock appointment as secretary-general of the UN. Let us simply accept that Corbyn is the unlikeliest leader of anything, ever, in all of human history, and that his arrival on that platform to a rapturous reception from the faithful belonged to a movie in which a chain of outlandish events propels a homespun local boy – Jimmy Stewart with the faintest remnants of a Shropshire brogue – towards the citadel of democratic power.
For the eponymous hero of Mr Corbyn Goes To Brighton, what the hell must it have felt like as he walked to his lectern? After half a lifetime toiling away in frowsty rooms above pubs, preaching the disregarded gospel of socialism to sparse gatherings of the like-minded dozing on rickety chairs, here he was, reborn as the headline act. Anyone ordinary would have been white with tension, or green with nausea, the legs shaking, the internal voice screeching “condemn me to eternal hell by all means, God, but for the next hour don’t let me wet my pants”.
Yet one thing we’ve learned about Corbyn is that, for all the Pooterish ordinariness of a middle-aged man who cycles through the morning mist to tend to his allotment, he is anything but ordinary. In the absoluteness of his self-confidence, he is perfectly extraordinary.
Words can barely quantify the leap in class for the Rocky Balboa of North Islington, this journeyman winched from the undercard of political life and deposited in the championship ring. And in Brighton, bless his doughty heart, he handled the pressure with insouciant ease.
The speech itself, while it had its rousing crescendoes, was solid without being spectacular. The jokes were excellent and nicely delivered, especially the opening gags about his demented coverage in our more fanciful journals of record, which struck a nice tone of wry detachment. He could have said more, and more emotionally, about what it means to him to be British. But among a clutch of stirring embryonic slogans was his line about the British people not having to accept what they are given when what they are given (as he didn’t quite go on to say) are meagre, sloppy seconds from the Tory banqueting table.
“Well, no, we’re not having it,” he said, switching from affable uncle into Peter Finch railing in Network about being as mad as hell and not prepared to take it any more. Corbyn no more does frothing rage than he does rudeness, but he did momentarily seem a bit cross. About as peeved as a good-natured fellow might expect to be on finding pesky kids felt-tipping cartoon genitals over his prize marrow.
The speech was good, but had its flaws. It lacked a powerful unifying theme. Inexplicably, amid all the castigations of Conservative callousness, he said not a word about the disgusting financial persecution of disabled people. Generally, he focused too much on those in the hall and Labour members beyond. More than anything, his speech was callibrated to marshalling and motivating an army of activists – a vital task for Labour, of course, but one that needed to take a back seat to this priceless chance to speak directly to the sceptics. That, although he promised to do so at the start, he did too little.
Understandably for an autocue ingenu, he fluffed a few words and almost whispered others. “Listen carefully,” he said at one point, as if addressing a 1978 polytechnic remedial class on dialectic, and at times you needed to. Towards the end of the hour, a mischievous frog appeared in his throat to raise the distasteful spectre of Duncan-Smith and his plea for survival in an earlier conference speech.
The optics, meanwhile, were mixed. When he gave generous shout-outs to defeated leadership rivals Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper, the absence of cutaway shots to their falsely grinning faces confirmed that they, along with most other founder members of BABIE (Blairite And Brownites In Exile) lacked the minimal good manners required to turn up.
But when he lavished praise on Harriet Harman’s career, the genuine smile on that half of Margaret Beckett’s face that was visible to Harman’s left hinted that she thought herself a little less moronic now than when she nominated Corbyn in the first place. And no wonder if she did. His cool assurance under unimaginable pressure was astounding: the first side-angle shot of his hands, about five minutes in, found not the hint of a tremor.
Of all the qualities required of any political leader, let alone one as beset by horrendous internal and external threats as this one, none is more crucial than temperament. Corbyn’s is staggeringly good. He may be no Obama when it comes to pyrotechnic oratory, but he does have the President’s ungodly calm under fire. David Cameron – and those far deadlier enemies of Corbyn’s on his own Labour benches – would be foolish to underestimate the determination of this quiet man.
“Overnight stardom can be harmful to your mental health,” Clint Eastwood said, long before he did his best to underscore the point by debating an empty chair at a Republican convention. “It has ruined a lot of people.” On this form, partly perhaps because his overnight stardom was so long in the making, but more because to an astonishing degree he seems born to do this job, it will not ruin Jeremy Corbyn. It will not change him one bReuse content