Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May's Brexit standoff is like a tedious football match nobody wants to win

Keir Starmer is a magnificent throwback to a less hysterical political era. If we do get a referendum replay, it will be due to his heroic patience

Matthew Norman
Tuesday 26 February 2019 14:06
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Second referendum on Brexit 'goes against absolutely everything Jeremy Corbyn believes in', claims Nigel Farage

After a long and gruelling stint at the coma patient’s bedside, any movement, however tiny, will inspire delirious optimism.

An eyelid flutters, a finger twitches, the corners of the mouth rise half a millimetre, and off you’d sprint to the nearest doctor for confirmation that a full recovery is imminent.

Jeremy Corbyn’s (albeit heavily qualified) endorsement of a second referendum is that flicker of the eye. In the attritional standoff against the cadre of senior colleagues led by Keir Starmer, Corbyn blinked.

But biblical miracles are rarities in a godless world, and he isn’t Lazarus yet. The wise consultant would warn against reading too much into it. It might be a giant stride on the road to awakening, or just a baby step. It might be nothing more significant than a reflex response (in this case, to the threat of further defections to the Independent Group).

Which it will prove remains shrouded in the usual confusion. The only thing plainly visible through the fog of this shadow cabinet civil war is Corbyn’s extreme reluctance – apparently he recited the written statement to his MPs like a hostage victim with an axe wiggling above his head – to shift even as far as he has. The small print beneath the headline contractual promise is typically opaque. It appears that Labour will back a new referendum if and when (so, when) its own soft Brexit deal proposal goes down in the Commons. But what the questions would be is unknown, and whether they would include “Remain in the EU” is a matter of opinion.

Emily Thornberry flashed out of the traps to declare that staying would undoubtedly be an option. Starmer underscored that position on the Today programme, citing a straight choice between “a credible deal”, whatever that means, and remaining.

Corbyn’s opinion appears otherwise. An anonymous aide briefed the media that Thornberry “misspoke”. In a tough no-nonsense counterstrike, Thornberry tweeted that this was “Nonsense … Pretty hard to misspeak identically in 10 interviews, but for clarity: if Theresa May won’t accept our deal, then the public must decide: do we accept whatever deal she gets through, or do we remain?”

Assuming he sanctioned that brutal rebuke to his shadow foreign secretary, Corbyn was delving into the Trump playbook. After yielding to intense pressure to say something he doesn’t believe, he immediately signalled his disdain for his own statement by trashing a colleague who reiterated its gist.

So the suspicion remains that he, like Theresa May, will say whatever he must, and as vaguely as possible, to run down the doomsday clock.

Watching the pair these recent months brings to mind international football’s most infamous fixture. West Germany and Austria met in the 1982 World Cup knowing that a narrow German win would qualify both for the next stage. After the Germans took an early lead, for the remaining 80 minutes the sides showed so little interest in trying to score that fans of both burnt their national flags in disgust.

Westminster’s version of the “Anschluss” match is slightly different. In this stultifying riot of inaction, it’s the rival captains who are shielding the ball by the corner flag to waste time and secure the result they both want. And the players they’re shielding it from are the ones on their own team.

Fifa changed its regulations after that fiasco to ensure it couldn’t happen again. Here, no one understands what the rules are, or if they exist at all. Even at this late stage, when everyone sane agrees there will be penalties if we crash out on 29 March, it isn’t certain that there will be extra time. Even if the Cooper-Letwin amendment passes on Wednesday, and states the Commons will to delay the process if her deal isn’t approved, it’s a matter of guesswork how binding on Theresa May that would be.

While Thornberry didn’t misspeak yesterday, on the radio this morning, Starmer did. The PM, he told Nick Robinson, is sticking “blinkeredly” to her red lines. Perhaps that’s a sign of his exhaustion after expending so much energy on trying to cajole his leader into unequivocally supporting a second referendum. Anyone else would have stormed off in rage, or spent the last year under his desk making up new words by talking in tongues.

In his quiet, rational way, Starmer has been a magnificent throwback to a less hysterical political era. If we do get a referendum replay, it will be due more to his heroic patience than any other factor.

The odds against that have narrowed slightly since Corbyn’s address. What was a less than a one in four chance in the betting markets is now almost one in three. In a field without a warm favourite, where every possible outcome looks more unlikely than the rest, there is real encouragement in that. This fight isn’t over yet. Nor, it seems, is the Corbyn coma. But while the patient isn’t about to leap out of bed, he has at least blinked. Publicly at least, he is isn’t as blinkeredly wedded to his anti-Final Say red line as he was.

After so long at the bedside, desperately awaiting any sign of movement, that will do for now.

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