What Jeremy Corbyn gets about Brexit – it's a catalyst for change

Theresa May's bad campaign isn't an opportunity for us to ditch Brexit, says former Conservative Cabinet minister Tina Stowell.

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The moment that Theresa May first insisted “nothing has changed” was when she lost her majority and all hope of a resounding victory. Her maladroit U-turn on social care was bad, but that’s not quite what I mean. 

Those three words encapsulated the fears of voters of all types who are so desperate for things to be different. She made them doubt her, and so some (though thankfully not all) started looking elsewhere. Now in government with no majority, May needs to be careful to avoid survival becoming her purpose (my heart sank when I heard that Number 10 had briefed out the same line again in response to calls to remove the public sector pay cap.)

I doubt many at Glastonbury cared about May’s fortunes when Jeremy Corbyn addressed the massive and adoring crowds. “The commentariat got it wrong,” he said. “The elites got it wrong . . . young people . . . got involved for the first time . . . because they were fed up with being denigrated, fed up with being told they don’t matter.” 

But remove the word “young” and, notwithstanding what I’ve just said about her, May could say the same to all the “uneducated” and working-class voters in northern and Midlands towns who placed a cross in the Tory box for the first time on 8 June. 

Because – as different as Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn and their manifestos are from each other (and I’ll come back to another big difference of theirs in a moment) – the one thing they do share is an understanding that voters of all types are fed up with how “the system” works and want things to change. In other words, the biggest divide is not between the parties or among the voters, it is between all of “us” – the powerful and influential – and “them” – those who feel cut off and left out. 

Regardless of how things unfold for the Government or the opposition in the months ahead, all of us in Westminster, Whitehall and business must stop believing that the best response to the massive political events of 2016 and 2017 would be for nothing to change. 

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Take this Guardian leader: “Britain’s decision to leave the EU was lamentable when it was taken. It remains lamentable now. If it is ever carried out, it will still be lamentable in the future. That is not going to change.”  No doubt I could add a raft of quotes from MPs and peers from this week’s debates on the Queen’s Speech making a similar point. 

I really don’t understand why so many of us don’t get it.  Especially – and it pains me to say this – when even Jeremy Corbyn gets it. He knows, of course, that a lot of his supporters don’t like Brexit (especially young people like those at Glastonbury). But he also knows it would be suicidal to join in the chorus of saying the people who voted for it were wrong, because for them Brexit is their means to change.

Which brings me back to the biggest difference between Corbyn and May that has not yet been properly discussed. In fact, it’s what unites Corbyn, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – and distinguishes our Prime Minister from them. 

The three of them are spokesmen for their supporters. “Their people” have adopted them. Corbyn’s supporters trust his commitment to them so strongly they don’t question his motives in supporting all-out Brexit. 

You dis Corbyn or Trump and you dis the people who voted for them.  By all means disagree with their policies and what they stand for if you believe them to be wrong (nearly all of Corbyn’s plans fill me with genuine fear and the overall package scares me rigid). But saying things like Donald Trump is stupid or Jeremy Corbyn is a scruffy idiot will backfire and reinforce the reasons people feel so cut off in the first place. Apart from Philip May, I can’t think of anyone who feels personally affronted by personal attacks on Theresa May. 

Oh-The-re-sa-May” is not a chant we’ll hear at concerts or on football terraces soon. Had the Prime Minister done a better job during the election campaign, that would have been her prize. Not the chanting, I just don’t see that, ever: I mean she would have become spokesman for Leavers and Re-Leavers, the largest growing group (who have accepted Brexit and want us to make a success of it, too). Instead, she’s had to settle for gaining the votes but not the loyalty of the working classes, older voters and the “uneducated”.   That means May and the rest of the Conservative Party still have a lot of work to do. 

What’s vital for all Tories and everyone else to understand is that, the Prime Minister’s electoral failures do not provide an emergency exit for those who don’t want Brexit. In fact, it places greater responsibility on the rest of us. Because without a spokesman to translate, the people cut off and desperate for change who don’t want to rely on Jeremy Corbyn have nothing to rely on but Brexit itself. And that means, dis Brexit and you dis them.

All these debates about single market, customs union, soft, hard, open and closed Brexit still sound to them like excuses. Even as elites scramble to maintain as much of the pre-2016 status quo as they can, the last thing the rest of Britain wants to hear is that nothing has changed.

Tina Stowell is a Conservative peer and was Leader of the House of Lords and a member of David Cameron’s Cabinet from 2014 to 2016.