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What Jeremy Corbyn gets about Brexit – it's a catalyst for change

Theresa May's bad campaign isn't an opportunity for us to ditch Brexit, says former Conservative Cabinet minister Tina Stowell.

The moment that Theresa May first insisted “nothing has changed” was when she lost her majority and all hope of a resounding victory. Her maladroit U-turn on social care was bad, but that’s not quite what I mean. 

Those three words encapsulated the fears of voters of all types who are so desperate for things to be different. She made them doubt her, and so some (though thankfully not all) started looking elsewhere. Now in government with no majority, May needs to be careful to avoid survival becoming her purpose (my heart sank when I heard that Number 10 had briefed out the same line again in response to calls to remove the public sector pay cap.)

I doubt many at Glastonbury cared about May’s fortunes when Jeremy Corbyn addressed the massive and adoring crowds. “The commentariat got it wrong,” he said. “The elites got it wrong . . . young people . . . got involved for the first time . . . because they were fed up with being denigrated, fed up with being told they don’t matter.” 

But remove the word “young” and, notwithstanding what I’ve just said about her, May could say the same to all the “uneducated” and working-class voters in northern and Midlands towns who placed a cross in the Tory box for the first time on 8 June. 

Because – as different as Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn and their manifestos are from each other (and I’ll come back to another big difference of theirs in a moment) – the one thing they do share is an understanding that voters of all types are fed up with how “the system” works and want things to change. In other words, the biggest divide is not between the parties or among the voters, it is between all of “us” – the powerful and influential – and “them” – those who feel cut off and left out. 

Regardless of how things unfold for the Government or the opposition in the months ahead, all of us in Westminster, Whitehall and business must stop believing that the best response to the massive political events of 2016 and 2017 would be for nothing to change. 

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Take this Guardian leader: “Britain’s decision to leave the EU was lamentable when it was taken. It remains lamentable now. If it is ever carried out, it will still be lamentable in the future. That is not going to change.”  No doubt I could add a raft of quotes from MPs and peers from this week’s debates on the Queen’s Speech making a similar point. 

I really don’t understand why so many of us don’t get it.  Especially – and it pains me to say this – when even Jeremy Corbyn gets it. He knows, of course, that a lot of his supporters don’t like Brexit (especially young people like those at Glastonbury). But he also knows it would be suicidal to join in the chorus of saying the people who voted for it were wrong, because for them Brexit is their means to change.

Which brings me back to the biggest difference between Corbyn and May that has not yet been properly discussed. In fact, it’s what unites Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – and distinguishes our Prime Minister from them. 

The three of them are spokesmen for their supporters. “Their people” have adopted them. Corbyn’s supporters trust his commitment to them so strongly they don’t question his motives in supporting all-out Brexit. 

You dis Corbyn or Trump and you dis the people who voted for them.  By all means disagree with their policies and what they stand for if you believe them to be wrong (nearly all of Corbyn’s plans fill me with genuine fear and the overall package scares me rigid). But saying things like Donald Trump is stupid or Jeremy Corbyn is a scruffy idiot will backfire and reinforce the reasons people feel so cut off in the first place. Apart from Philip May, I can’t think of anyone who feels personally affronted by personal attacks on Theresa May. 

Oh-The-re-sa-May” is not a chant we’ll hear at concerts or on football terraces soon. Had the Prime Minister done a better job during the election campaign, that would have been her prize. Not the chanting, I just don’t see that, ever: I mean she would have become spokesman for Leavers and Re-Leavers, the largest growing group (who have accepted Brexit and want us to make a success of it, too). Instead, she’s had to settle for gaining the votes but not the loyalty of the working classes, older voters and the “uneducated”.   That means May and the rest of the Conservative Party still have a lot of work to do. 

What’s vital for all Tories and everyone else to understand is that, the Prime Minister’s electoral failures do not provide an emergency exit for those who don’t want Brexit. In fact, it places greater responsibility on the rest of us. Because without a spokesman to translate, the people cut off and desperate for change who don’t want to rely on Jeremy Corbyn have nothing to rely on but Brexit itself. And that means, dis Brexit and you dis them.

All these debates about single market, customs union, soft, hard, open and closed Brexit still sound to them like excuses. Even as elites scramble to maintain as much of the pre-2016 status quo as they can, the last thing the rest of Britain wants to hear is that nothing has changed.

Tina Stowell is a Conservative peer and was Leader of the House of Lords and a member of David Cameron’s Cabinet from 2014 to 2016.

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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left