It was a relaxed and assured Jeremy Corbyn who took to Andrew Marr’s sofa this morning. His absolute confidence in where he stands on almost every issue, his uninterest in spinning “a line” and precisely his lack of media training means that he avoids the tortured contortions that afflicted other leaders (not least Ed Miliband). Confronted with a shadow cabinet split of the scale that Corbyn faces over Trident, most would cut a haunted figure. But the Labour leader, with humorous understatement, reflected: “There may end up being a difference of opinion … Is it so disastrous to have two opinions?” A free vote on the issue appears to be the only solution, with just a handful of shadow cabinet members (Diane Abbott, John McDonnell, Ian Murray, Jon Trickett) supporting unilateral disarmament. But MPs fear that division on a matter as grave as national security will destroy any hope of Labour appearing as a credible opposition (let alone an alternative government).
Corbyn has earned a reputation for giving “straight answers”. But his responses on other subjects showed that he recognises the need to moderate his most divisive views. Offered the chance to affirm his anti-monarchism, he declined, instead acknowledging: “The majority of people probably go along with that [an unelected head of state], that’s fine.” Asked if he supported a united Ireland, he said that it was “for the Irish people to decide”. Unionists won’t have liked the omission of “Northern” but Corbyn at least now speaks of his republicanism in the past tense (“I’m very much on the record as saying that”). On tax, he vowed to go no higher than a 50 per cent rate of income tax.
After past quotes by his greatest ally, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, praising the 2010 Millbank riots and floating the possibility of “insurrection”, Corbyn relaxedly explained: “It was a colourful use of words. Is John in favour of insurrection? No, he’s not”. He was never in favour, he emphasised, of “street violence”. It is not ideal, to put it mildly, for Corbyn to have to devote a large part of an interview to denying that he and his supporters favour direct action. But his calm demeanor and good humour make it harder for his opponents to frame him as a latter-day Jacobin. Instead, like his mentor Tony Benn, he suggested that his politics owes more to Methodism than Marxism. “I’m very familiar with the Bible, I was brought up with the Bible,” he said, before ending with a simple, humane appeal: “I want to achieve a decent, democratic society where nobody is forgotten and we don’t, as a society, pass by on the other side while the poor lie in the gutter.” Many will nod in agreement with that. But one of the lessons of the last election was that altruism alone is not sufficient for Labour to win. The fear of MPs is that Corbyn the preacher will only appeal to the converted.