This ought to be Tim Farron’s great moment. The Labour Party has been taken over by the hard left, which ought to be a huge opportunity for a party of the centre. Yet the leader of the Liberal Democrats seems peripheral to the historic reshaping of British politics.
Farron said on Friday that he had “received a number of messages and calls from friends within the Labour Party distressed by the direction that their party is taking”, and he invited “liberals” to come and join his party. This is an appeal we will hear many times this week from the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth.
It will fall on deaf ears, not least because it is comically misconceived. All labels in politics are too simple: left, right, hard left, liberal. But they do mean something, and those Labour sympathisers who are repelled by Jeremy Corbyn are not liberals, they are social democrats.
It ought to be relevant, therefore, that the Lib Dems were created by a merger of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties, and you might expect Farron to emphasise the party’s social-democratic tradition. Instead he is appealing for “liberals” to come and join him.
That shows how little he understands Labour MPs. Those who are most offended by Corbyn prioritise national security over civil liberties. When the SDP broke away from Labour in 1981, taking 27 MPs with them (and one Conservative, Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler), it was one-sided nuclear disarmament, along with Europe and orthodox economics, that motivated them. Using simple labels, Corbyn is more “left wing” than Michael Foot, but that is why he has decided to postpone the fight in his party over Trident and Europe.
Apart from Farron, two of the most mischievous minds in politics are trying to encourage speculation that Labour MPs might be about to defect. Peter Mandelson was seen around the House of Lords carrying a copy of Bill Rodgers’s memoir, Fourth Among Equals. Rodgers was the best of the Gang of Four who left Labour to set up the SDP in 1981. And George Osborne, the Chancellor, has let it be known that he is in touch with centrist Labour MPs who have shared their dismay about their new leader.
Mandelson and Osborne are both trying to destabilise Corbyn, one because he wants to save the Labour Party, the other because he wants to destroy it. Farron is merely trying to reassure his party – which chose him as the Corbyn-lite candidate on the assumption that Labour would return to the centre – that it hasn’t chosen the wrong leader.
There is always a chance a maverick might go, but I don’t think the Lib Dem conference this week will exert a strong gravitational pull on Labour MPs. Justin Madders, elected in May, responded sarcastically to Farron’s appeal: “Anyone got Tim Farron’s mobile? With only eight MPs I’d have a great chance of a frontbench job... Oh, hang on, remembered why there’s only eight.”
Which is not to deny that there is a strong force pushing Labour MPs away from their new leadership. Towards the end of Prime Minister’s Questions last week, Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, asked David Cameron to join him in denouncing Corbyn’s shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, for saying that the bravery of IRA terrorists should be honoured.
Angela Eagle, Corbyn’s shadow First Secretary of State, sitting next to the Leader of the Opposition, nodded when the Prime Minister replied that “the terrorism we faced was wrong – it was unjustifiable”. I am told that more than one shadow cabinet minister felt that Dodds spoke for them. Nor were they assuaged by McDonnell’s carefully worded apology for his comments about the IRA – “if I gave offence, and I clearly have” – on BBC Question Time on Thursday.
That moment in the House of Commons clarified for many Labour MPs the choice they face. How many of them could say, in their heart of hearts, that Corbyn should be prime minister? Eagle is tribal Labour, but I know more than one MP, and there must be many more, who, asked to choose privately between Osborne, who is likely to be leader of the Conservative Party by then, and Corbyn, would reluctantly prefer Osborne.
As a friend of mine said, as well as Labour members and registered supporters, there ought to be a new category for people who are party members but not supporters.
But Labour MPs are not going to defect. It is their party, and they intend to take it back. It would be hard for them to fight an election with Corbyn as leader and, perhaps even more so, with McDonnell in a senior position, but they don’t think Corbyn is going to last.
Nor, incidentally, does the Prime Minister. A source close to David Cameron last week wondered whether the new Leader of the Opposition was tough enough to withstand the pressure. At least Ed Miliband was resilient. Corbyn seems to have few resources on which to fall if public opinion turns against him. Our ComRes poll suggests that people see him as different, in a positive way that engages people with politics, but they don’t have a favourable view of him – and Labour is still 12 points behind the Tories.
So there won’t be defections. There will be a civil war instead.