There is no more momentous political decision ahead than whether the UK remains in the EU. But Jeremy Corbyn’s position is less clear than ever. When he left the shadow cabinet last night, Chuka Umunna cited the Labour leader’s refusal to guarantee to campaign for membership. “It is my view that we should support the UK remaining a member of the EU, notwithstanding the outcome of any renegotiation by the Prime Minister,” Umunna said. “I cannot envisage any circumstances where I would be campaigning alongside those who would argue for us to leave – Jeremy has made it clear to me that he does not wholeheartedly share this view.”
But when shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn appeared on the Today programme this morning, he insisted that “We will be campaigning to remain in the European Union in all circumstances.” Who’s right? Sources suggest that Corbyn simply told Umunna one thing and Benn another. Corbyn, a long-standing eurosceptic, told Umunna that it was possible but unlikely that he would campaign to leave if he was unsatisfied with David Cameron’s renegotiation. The Labour leader is unwilling to give Cameron a “blank cheque” and has warned against any changes to employment legislation and approval of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. He is also seeking to appease those on the left who support EU withdrawal. Motions have been tabled at the TUC conference in favour of exit and the GMB is flirting with this stance. But while keeping the left on side, Corbyn also has to satisfy his shadow foreign secretary, which explains his contrasting statements.
When he was interviewed by the New Statesman in July, Corbyn remarked that he had not “closed his mind” to EU withdrawal, before later issuing a statement arguing that the UK should not “walk away” but “fight together for a better Europe”. The ambiguity, however, has returned. How long Corbyn is able to maintain it as the referendum approaches will be an early test of his leadership.