Jeremy Corbyn’s letter has turned the tables on Jo Swinson

The Liberal Democrat leader is right about the parliamentary arithmetic, but Corbyn has successfully shifted the medias focus.

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Who’s to blame for the failure of a cross-party government to prevent no deal? That’s the big question that Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, faced at her big speech this morning, which also saw the formal unveiling of their latest defector, the Totnes MP Sarah Wollaston.

Jeremy Corbyn’s letter has successfully turned the media narrative – which given the whole “GNU” row is a tussle in the bubble is really all that matters – to a question not just of “What will Labour do?” but “Aren’t the Liberal Democrats also part of the problem”, which put Swinson on the defensive during the Q&A.

The nonsense of the whole row is that both leaders are right. It’s not reasonable to expect Corbyn to publicly concede that doubts about his leadership are sufficiently large that there is no prospect of him forming a government. That would mean Labour going into an election telling the voters that a no-deal Brexit was a calamity that had to be prevented – having publicly conceded that the argument that a Corbyn government is an equal calamity is at least sufficiently worthwhile to be conceded to in order to prevent no deal. No political leader would ever agree to an act of such colossal self-destruction. No cross-party government – whether you want to call it a unity government, a caretaker government as Corbyn did or an emergency government as Swinson did today – can succeed without the leader of the largest opposition party or the leader of the governing party at its head. 

But Swinson is correct to say that there is no prospect of a Corbyn caretaker government being able to command a majority in this House of Commons – the 11 former Labour MPs sitting as independents alone make that implausible, even before you start factoring in floating independents like Sylvia Hermon, who will never vote to put Corbyn in Downing Street, or get into the central question of whether there are enough Conservative MPs floating around full stop in order to create a unity government, regardless of leader. There is no plausible unity government, caretaker government or emergency government with Corbyn at its head.

Does it matter? It’s the definition of a bubble story and one that only appeals to people who follow politics incredibly closely. But it might matter a bit because, while most of the electorate doesn’t follow politics closely, the 10 per cent that does are well concentrated in the parts of the population for which the Liberal Democrats compete for votes.

Swinson has a tricky balancing act – she has to hold the line that the Liberal Democrats won’t make either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister to hold a coalition together, but she also can’t be seen as the person responsible for blocking a caretaker government. What she really needs is for one part of the Liberal Democrat coalition to hear the message “We’ll do anything to stop no deal, but Jeremy Corbyn’s plan is not going to work” and for another to remain reassured that a Liberal Democrat vote isn’t one for Corbyn by the back door. It’s potentially an impossible ask and Corbyn has done well to force her onto it.

But Swinson, as with Corbyn, has two big sources of solace: that ultimately the real problem with a caretaker government is that the numbers simply aren’t there; and that even the politically engaged parts of the electorate which are particularly fruitful for the Liberal Democrats tend to switch off over the summer.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.