Source: ‘The Times’, Matthew Parris
“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent,” wrote Edmund Burke in 1790, “pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.”
Enough, then, of chinking Remainer grasshoppers like this columnist — or chinking Leavers like the prime minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings. Enough of Tory rebel resistance to a no-deal Brexit, admirable as it is; or the remnants of the brave little Independent Group. Enough, even, of the wedge of Liberal Democrat MPs and their leader Jo Swinson’s importunate chink this week.
Think, instead, about the cattle. In the one great issue now facing the nation, the grasshoppers are marginal unless the cattle are with them. For a no-deal Brexit to be blocked by parliament, the cattle are Labour MPs. For all our chinking, the so-called “rebel alliance” sits on the shoulders of this confused, demoralised and lumbering giant, elevated only by Labour’s arithmetic.
Remember them, the principal opposition? A distant memory perhaps? But those 247-odd souls, nearly 40 per cent of the total of voting MPs whose party had the support of almost 13 million voters two years ago, constitute the great bulk of potential opposition to no-deal. All calculations must rest on their intentions. Unless the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs stay rock solid behind whatever parliamentary procedure is chosen to stop Boris Johnson crashing Britain out of the EU, all is lost. Their solidarity remains a likelihood but not a certainty — and I’m worried that Jeremy Corbyn has this week been trying to muddy the waters.
I cannot dispel a suspicion that in the coming struggle Mr Corbyn, or more importantly the tight-knit group who help steer his leadership, have cloudy intentions. On Brexit they have a history of triangulating and this week, by steering the question away from no-deal and towards who should be prime minister, they’re at it again. Here are two questions to which I fear we cannot be sure of the answer. Do the key little Corbyn gang really want a general election right away? And do they really want to stop Britain leaving the European Union?
On the first question — do they want an election before October 31? — there must be reason for doubt. This would favour Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party at the expense of both Labour and the Tories, and it’s hard to imagine the result being a working Labour majority. Were I Mr Corbyn my preferred election date would be this winter, after Britain had crashed out of the EU: a time of great national anxiety. Particularly if Mr Johnson had cheated constitutional convention by denying parliament a vote he might well be deeply unpopular by then. And Mr Farage’s Brexit fox would have been shot.
To my second inquiry — do the Corbyn gang want to impede Brexit? — I reply that if I believed what the most powerful of Mr Corbyn’s team, Seumas Milne, believes, I’d see the European Union as a capitalist club and an impediment to socialist goals. Nor should we forget Mr Corbyn’s spooky silence in the campaign for Remain before the 2016 referendum: it spoke louder than words.
Has this long-term opponent of British EU membership really changed his mind? Has he relegated Mr Milne? Imagine for a moment that as Labour leader, and for fierce ideological reasons, you wanted Britain out but were realistic enough to know that the short to middle-term consequences would prove unpopular with voters. What wish would you be asking your fairy godmother to grant? That a Tory did the irreversible deed, surely, leaving you to build socialism on the ruins of what the Tories leave behind. And Mr Johnson is about to oblige.
So I place the Corbyn gang where I think their interests should place them: keen for the hardest possible Brexit to happen, anxious that Mr Johnson does it for them, and tiptoeing sometimes awkwardly between wanting to appear opposed to Tory plans and secretly trying not to trip him. In which case what does such a Labour leader do? Call for a confidence vote and a general election. And hope thereby (and apparently accidentally) to queer the pitch of the rebel alliance’s bid to take control of government business. In short, triangulate away from Brexit.
This would solve for me the riddle of why Mr Corbyn launched his no-confidence project in a manner careless of support from other parties. There was no consultation beforehand. Had I, in his place, really wanted to topple Mr Johnson in time for a pre-October 31 general election, I’d have made private approaches to potential allies, sounding them out, discussing what conditions they’d want to place on my hoped-for “interim” premiership, and doing my best to turn it into a collegiate, cross-party idea. Instead, the Labour leader has fired off what was essentially an open letter, taking (for example) Ms Swinson so by surprise that she foolishly forgot to feign interest in the proposal and instead called it out for the nonsense that, in just a couple of weeks, it would be.
It’s very possible Mr Corbyn will postpone a confidence vote in early September. The office of “interim prime minister” is unknown to our constitution; who can say what policy issues or political emergencies might arise during Mr Corbyn’s hoped-for few weeks in Downing Street. Weeks could become months; could he be trusted to set aside his personal politics? Other parties will also be wary of any ambition in the Labour leader to detoxify his present, rebarbative image by appearing in the guise of a national unity figure, even if only for a while.
It may, nevertheless, come to a confidence vote, more likely in October; and that might be too late. It is vital that the parliamentary Labour Party sees the promise of a confidence vote — but not yet — as the trap it would be. It must not let Mr Corbyn’s whips fool it: the critical time will be the first weeks of September. These are when the Commons itself could take charge of our European fate.
This columnist’s suspicion is that the bandits in temporary control of the Labour Party want Mr Johnson to crash Britain out of the EU, then crash his own premiership into the buffers of a general election. Mr Johnson appears to want this too. Parliament should beware of getting crushed in an eccentric embrace between a crank and a rascal, both trying to procrastinate.”