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  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
23 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:24pm

Jeremy Corbyn is about to find out just how much goodwill he has with Remainers

The Labour leader’s sacking of a dissident frontbencher is understandable, but risky.

By Stephen Bush

Jeremy Corbyn’s sacking of Owen Smith has Westminster feverishly speculating about what the Labour leader’s plan is. The Telegraph’s Tom Harris and the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman both suggest that the dismissal of the Pontpypridd MP from his berth as Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is an attempt to throw people off today’s other big Labour story: that Corbyn called for an anti-Semitic mural not to be taken down.

It’s possible that the sacking is an exercise in distraction from the leadership’s real worry, but not, I think, all that likely, for several reasons. The first is the timing: the leader’s office likes to announce its personnel changes late on a Friday night as the weekend acts a good firebreak to any follow-up stories, so it seems unlikely that they would chose their preferred Friday night slot for a story they wanted to travel and to travel widely.

The second reason is that ultimately, Smith was sacked for calling for a second referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, in contravention of party policy. It is rare in the extreme for frontbenchers to be able to remain in place after publicly defying their party’s leader, unless the leader is very weak or the frontbencher in question is very strong. Corbyn currently enjoys a hegemonic position in the Labour Party and Smith’s standing is none too strong.

But the third reason is that Corbyn means what he says: he accepts the referendum outcome because he is a Eurosceptic of longstanding, a label he explicitly embraced in his big speech coming out in favour of the customs union, and one he implicitly doubled down on with his speech to Scottish Labour conference, which majored on the traditional preoccupations of the Eurosceptic left.

The interesting thing about this sacking is not what it says about other things but what it says about Corbyn, Remainers, and the prevailing view of both the Labour leader and the bulk of his close aides.

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Labour did very well at the election in areas where Remainers cluster in great numbers and look set to repeat that feat in the local elections in May. The open question is to what extent these voters want Labour’s Brexit position to be close to their own. The argument that they do is one that has its advocates in Corbyn’s inner circle, including Corbyn’s close ally Diane Abbott. But it is currently a minority view, with the accepted analysis that most Remainers view supporting the EU as a proxy for a swathe of cultural and social liberal issues, and that Corbyn has enough credibility on that for him to be able to adopt a Brexit position closer to his instincts (and to the third of Labour voters who backed a Leave vote in 2017).

Are they right? Well, we don’t know. But in sacking a vocal Europhile from his Shadow Cabinet, Corbyn may be about to find out.

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