Jeremy Corbyn is not a secret Brexiter. His performance on tonight’s Sky News Q&A, during which he rebutted left-wing arguments for leaving, proved as much. Challenged on his Remain stance after a lifetime of euroscepticism, he replied: “My head hasn’t been turned by anything. My head doesn’t get turned.” Shadow cabinet ministers who have discussed the subject with him do not doubt his sincerity.
But Corbyn is the most reluctant of Remainers. Asked at the start whether voters understood the referendum, he replied in the manner of a dispassionate teacher, rather than a campaigning leader. “If we Remain there are implications, if we Leave there are massive implications.” He later reflected: “There may well be a Leave vote … Whatever the result, we’ve got to work with it.” One couldn’t shake the sense that a shrug would be his most likely response to Brexit.
Though he noted the economic and social value of the EU (“more than half of our trade”), Corbyn spent much of the programme lambasting its agenda. His support for Remain, he warned, was “not unconditional”. He attacked TTIP as the “enfranchisement of global corporations at the expense of democratic countries”, denounced the EU for “shielding tax havens” and accused it of allowing large companies to exploit “loopholes in employment law.” Corbyn’s support isn’t for the EU of today but for the “Europe of solidarity” that fellow left-wing leaders have helped persuade him can be built. He refused to endorse George Osborne’s warning that Brexit would hit the poorest hardest (“Can I reflect on that?”) and denounced the “castrophist theories on both sides”.
At the close of the programme, Corbyn candidly stated what was already clear to viewers: “I am not a lover of the European Union”. But he added: “I think it’s a rational decision. We should stay to try to improve it.” It is a stance, eurosceptic but not Brexit, shared by most voters. But many in Labour fear that Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm could yet gift Leave victory (and potentially trigger a leadership challenge). Recent polling found that nearly half of the party’s voters did not know where it stood. At times tonight, Corbyn demonstrated precisely why. But challenged on whether he would bear any “blame” for Brexit (“You don’t seem too keen on the EU”), the Labour leader was unequivocal: “I’m not going to take blame for people’s decision.”