The week ends with Jeremy Corbyn’s first U-Turn: on Britain’s membership of the European Union, a subject that has dominated party discussions behind the scenes for much of the week. How did it happen?
Campaign aides are mystified. One commented to me during the leadership campaign that Corbyn “has been very agile on this: he’s left enough space to let pro-Europeans vote for him while reassuring the Eurosceptics’. Europe is the one issue where Corbyn is further away from Labour activists than the rest of his MPs. YouGov – who called the final result almost exactly – estimate that 77 per cent of party members support remaining in the European Union, while the Greens and the SNP are both firmly pro-remaining within the European Union.
But privately, Corbyn – and his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell – are strongly Eurosceptic. However, while NATO membership, Trident and fiscal policy can all be said to have played a key role in the leadership campaign, membership of the European Union did not. A fraught few days followed: Chuka Umunna left the shadow cabinet “by mutual consent” as the two men were unable to agree over the forthcoming European referndum. Hilary Benn, who remains as Shadow Foreign Secretary, ensured the Today programme that Labour would campaign for In: only to be personally embarrassed when Corbyn told a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party that he wouldn’t offer “a blank cheque” to David Cameron as far as supporting staying in Europe was concerned. On Tuesday, Charlie Falconer, the Shadow Justice Secretary, told the World at One he couldn’t remain on the frontbench should Labour back an Out vote in the coming referendum.
That was the backdrop to a tense meeting on Tuesday evening between Benn, Angela Eagle, new Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Corbyn himself, in which McDonnell and Corbyn were argued round to a more pro-European stance: set out, by Corbyn, in this morning’s Financial Times:
Our shadow cabinet is also clear that the answer to any damaging changes that Mr Cameron brings back from his renegotiation is not to leave the EU but to pledge to reverse those changes with a Labour government elected in 2020.”
It’s a form of argument very close to the one made by Tom Watson, Corbyn’s deputy, in the last days of the leadership campaign:
Our position on the referendum is “Yes”, we have to stay in. It’s clear, simple, and right. So let’s refuse to be distracted by whatever humdrum “deal” Cameron cobbles together to appease his own antis. He can’t unpick the progressive fabric of Social Europe. We know that. Any agreement he did reach which was in any way socially negative could be renegotiated in the future far, far more easily than could a No vote that took us out of the EU. This should be an easy one for us. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize.”
What does the U-Turn tell us? Perversely, it’s a sign that Corbyn will endure longer than many believe. Yes, his first week has been marked by avoidable gaffes and a big row over Europe. But there are very few areas which unite both Labour’s grassroots and his Shadow Cabinet against the party’s new leader, and his support among grassroots members remains undimmed. The infusion of new staff will make the machine more efficient over the coming days. The chaos of this week will seem a distant memory, very soon.