Mystic Martin

My powers as a soothsayer looked a little bit wobbly on my return from holiday. In my first column after the break I suggested that Tony Blair could announce the timetable for his departure “well in advance” of party conference. Oops! Such are the risks of political prophecy. In Thursday’s Times the PM made it clear he had no intention of doing anything quite so sensible. Instead he had decided to allow civil war to break out in the Labour Party.

Sorry, but even I didn’t think he would be quite so silly. More significantly, nor did my ultra-Blairite source, who thought it would be madness not to announce the timetable before Manchester. Although he was wrong to be so convinced Blair would outline his plans, he was right in two significant ways: firstly he said that if the PM left it too late “the situation will become intolerable and it will be impossible to push through new reforms”. That is quite possibly already the case. And secondly, he siad that that it would be entirely in character for Blair to delay the decision, which he duly did.

The Prime Minister is becoming an increasingly islolated figure and is now flying virtually solo. The idea that the week’s events were a closely coordinated Blairite plan are fanciful. Even his closest political allies recognise that Blair himself is becoming a serious problem and even a potential block on the reforms necessary to secure the new Labour legacy.

In today’s papers, Francis Elliott’s reporting and analysis in the Independent on Sunday is spot on as usual. As Francis says, many Labour MPs up to cabinet level now believe Blair is seriously deluded in refusing to commit to a timetable. Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer is also correct to suggest that even Blair’s closest allies agreed that he would have to agree a timetable before party conference “if the gathering in Manchester was not to turn into a riot of speculation and agitation”. That is now what we will have at the end of the month: all the more interesting for the commentariat, but devastating for the party.

Having made the Labour Party electable, Tony Blair seems intent on reducing it to the state in which Neil Kinnock found it in 1983.

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.