For Louise Mensch, Corby was nothing more than a stepping stone

Labour are poised to take control of a constituency where voters feel duped and used by their previous MP's time in office.

"If I had to sum up Corby in a single word, pride is the one I would use." So said Louise Bagshawe - now Mensch - in her maiden speech to Parliament. Two years later, with Mensch having left Northamptonshire for New York and a by-election called for this week, that word, pride, is absent when I meet with two young Corbyites to chat about their former MP.

“She was voted in off the back of people demanding change – Phil Hope was caught up in the expenses scandal – but we never saw that,” says Patrick Tierney, a 22-year-old politics graduate born and raised in the town. “From day one, people saw that she wasn’t committed. She seemed distant, and then for her to be so visible in the media, that didn’t go down too well. You’d overhear conversations in the pub or at the bus stop, people saying, ‘What does she think she’s doing? She’s a laughing stock’. She’d use buzzwords on Twitter, talk about Corby’s Scottish heritage, but when it came down to the nitty gritty there wasn’t much of a connection made.”

Liam Keith, a 27-year-old who works at the local video shop in town, agrees. “For a backbench MP that nobody had heard of before, she became very famous, very quickly. She was on Have I Got News For You and embarrassed herself a bit sitting next to Jonny Rotten on Question Time, but there was never any mention of what she was actually doing for Corby,” he says. “I followed her on Twitter. She always talked about ‘Corby Pride’, but she didn’t really understand the people of the town.”

“I never once saw her in the flesh,” he adds. “Most people feel that she was very much only here when she had to be.” This feeling of disconnection runs deep through Corby. One of David Cameron’s A-list candidates, Mensch, Oxford graduate, author of chick lit and prolific user of Twitter, was, you feel, always going to find it hard to fully relate to a working class new town built on heavy industry and hard work. High youth unemployment and yet more job losses at the steelworks this January didn’t help her cause either. Her resignation has aroused suspicions about why she became an MP in the first place. “She used Corby as a stepping stone, used it well to publicise herself,” Liam tells me. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s got a new book out by the end of the year.”

When she resigned from her seat in August, Mensch said she was doing so for family reasons. Yet in a recent interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, her husband, the rock band manager Peter Mensch, said that his wife had stood down because "she thought…she’d get killed in the next election." Mensch has denied this, but the fact remains that she has left a key marginal seat, midway through Parliament, with a slender majority of just 1,951. Labour are ready to pounce. “Ed Miliband was straight over here as soon as she resigned. I’ve had two people canvassing my door in the last week – they were Labour, both times,” says Keith. This push seems to be working – everyone I spoke to in the town said they were going to vote Labour.

The people I spoke to in Corby – proud, hardworking and down to earth – feel duped and used by Mensch’s time in office. They were hoping for a young, dynamic MP who would serve their interests well in parliament. The reality, many feel, was a lot different. On the day news of her resignation was made public, Mensch took to Twitter: "It has been an incredible honour serving the people of #CorbyEN." The feeling, according to Keith, is not mutual. “People wouldn’t miss her now she’s gone.”

 

Louise Mensch. Photograph: Getty Images
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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear