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Does Jeremy Corbyn really want to be prime minister? Whether the answer is yes or no, his leadership can't end well

There have been rumours that he has told his close advisers he wants to stand down, closely followed by rumours that John McDonnell and Seumas Milne persuaded him it was his duty to stay on

John Rentoul
Tuesday 10 January 2017 13:11 GMT
Do you want to be Prime Minister? Jeremy Corbyn dodges PM question again

Does Jeremy Corbyn really want to be prime minister? He was asked the question on ITV’s Good Morning Britain today, part of his pre-speech round of interviews, and answered: “I want to be in government.”

Part of this answer is modesty. It is an older tradition of politics: that anyone who shows interest in and ambition for high office is to be distrusted. Not until William Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign in 1878 did British political leaders go out in public to ask for votes. One is supposed to be dragged reluctantly to the chair, as with the ritual for the election of a new Speaker of the House of Commons. If enough people ask you, you accede reluctantly to their demand that you put yourself at the service of your party and your country.

This tradition is still strong on the old British left. Corbyn was put forward as the Campaign Group candidate for the Labour leadership mainly because it was “his turn”. John McDonnell and Diane Abbott had already had a go. His reluctance was part of his appeal to his supporters and evidence of his authenticity.

When Jon Snow, presenter of Channel 4 News, tried to badger him to repeat the phrase “I want to be prime minister” in an interview on the day after the EU referendum, Corbyn grew tetchy. His style is that he wants to be part of a team, first among equals in the old constitutional dictum about the prime minister. It is not very realistic but it is a polite fiction to which he subscribes.

The problem for Corbyn is that many people think that he really doesn’t want to be prime minister, among equals or not. Part of his diffidence and tetchiness is not feigned for modesty’s sake, but transparently reveals his discomfort in a leadership role.

He has got better at it, but he patently dislikes Prime Minister’s Questions. His body language is defensive and he sees Conservative heckling as a personal affront rather than as a chance to whack them with his message. He dislikes being interviewed by journalists, even Snow, whom he regards as part of the malign media.

He rarely gives the impression of enjoying the job. Occasionally he allows himself a twinkly-uncle mockery of journalists, and he liked the adulation of the crowds in the Labour leadership elections – although even that, I suspect, was more fun the first time round, when it was all so unexpected, not least by him.

He tries to be cheery with reporters outside his house, but it merely sounds sarcastic: “Nice to see you, good morning. This is my house, by the way.”

There have been rumours that he has told his close advisers he wants to stand down, closely followed by rumours that John McDonnell, the shadow Chancellor, and Seumas Milne, his director of strategy and communications, persuaded him it was his duty to stay on. How much influence these advisers have on him is hard to gauge, but there is no doubt that his own sense of “duty” is strong enough to keep him in post for the time being.

Duty and stubbornness. He thinks he has a responsibility to the cause: his brand of socialism has never controlled the Labour Party before, and he knows that if he steps down, someone less committed to it would be likely to take over. (Unless he can rewrite the party rules, McDonnell would fail to secure enough nominations to stand.)

And he takes enough advice from his team to agree to today’s campaigning. For a new style of politics modelled on Donald Trump, it was surprisingly conventional. A round of media interviews preceding a “major” speech (although it looked as if it was in someone’s garage). The anonymous briefings from Corbyn’s team in recent days that their man was going to copy Trump’s savaging of journalists turned out to be misleading.

Instead, most of Corbyn’s interactions with the media went wrong and not to his advantage. The smart thing to have done would have been to abandon the speech on Brexit and to deliver one on the NHS instead. The Government is under pressure, with the Health Secretary being chased down a street by a Sky News reporter after responding to the missed A&E target by changing the target.

Corbyn could even have said: the Prime Minister sees the EU referendum as being a vote against immigration, I see it as a vote for more money for the NHS.

Instead, he got tangled up in interviews over what his policy on immigration now was, and had to rewrite part of the speech anyway to insert a half sentence saying, “but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted”. By then, it was too late.

His staff also added a section to the speech to try to take advantage of a question John Humphrys had asked him on the Today programme about a maximum wage. Humphrys may have thought he would catch Corbyn out by getting him to repeat his old-left support for the idea. Actually, as the Prime Minister’s spokespeople in effect conceded when they refused to condemn it, an earnings cap is quite a popular idea.

So Corbyn thought he might distract journalists from his confusion over immigration by talking about high pay in his speech. It half-worked, but now he was talking about maximum pay ratios of 20 to 1 in the public sector so the press, being the press, now started to accuse him of a U-turn since his Today programme interview.

The end result was that Corbyn looked muddled and unpopular on Brexit, muddled and potentially popular on high pay, and missed a golden chance to press Labour’s advantage on the NHS. All in one day. It is hard to believe that someone who seriously wants and intends to be prime minister could have allowed such confusion around him.

I suppose he clings in private to the idea that remarkable things happen in politics, but it cannot be fun on a personal level to have most of your MPs thinking you are a hopeless liability while the party tests record depths in the opinion polls.

What is more, he must know that, if the Conservative Party collapsed and he, who will be 70 if the election is at the set time, formed a government, he would hate it. There is no way this can end well.

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