Labour has endured a torrid day of media coverage after Ephraim Mirvis, the Chief Rabbi, took the unprecedented step of questioning Jeremy Corbyn’s fitness for office. This evening, Andrew Neil, whose BBC interview with the Labour leader has many candidates privately despairing, ensured it will face another.
Asked four times whether he would apologise for Labour’s handling of accusations of anti-Semitism, Corbyn declined to take the opportunity to say sorry. He instead said Mirvis was wrong to accuse him of peddling a “mendacious fiction” in claiming Labour was doing its utmost to tackle anti-Semitism in its ranks, and denied the problem had worsened under his leadership.
The first third of the 30-minute programme was devoted entirely to discussion of Labour’s fractured relationship with the Jewish community. Though Corbyn condemned anti-Semitism as unacceptable, it is his lack of contrition that has become the story on the BBC and just about every national newspaper website. Indeed, it is the only section of the interview that most voters are likely to see. That will only prolong the derailment of the Labour campaign, whose media campaign is now likely to be drowned out by discussion of Corbyn’s record on racism for the second consecutive day.
For a party whose electoral strategy is to a large extent predicated on winning the air war over policy, the opportunity cost is huge – let alone with only 16 days to go. But even on the turf Labour believes suits their style of electoral play best, Corbyn struggled. He could not say how a Labour government would fund its £58 billion pledge to compensate Waspi women and admitted for the first time that some earning less than £80,000 a year would end up paying more tax under his government. Neil’s lengthy grilling on his policy of neutrality in a second referendum will have also gone down badly in Labour circles. With the polls tentatively moving in the right direction, it is about as unhelpful an intervention as Corbyn could have made.