Boris Johnson saves Jeremy Corbyn's conference speech

After a lacklustre conference, this morning's Supreme Court ruling allowed the Labour leader to frame his speech as an attack on the Prime Minister. 

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Has Boris Johnson saved Jeremy Corbyn’s conference? This morning’s Supreme Court ruling — and tomorrow’s resumption of parliamentary business — meant the Labour leader’s big speech had to be both rescheduled and rewritten in a much shorter form than usual. 

But today’s events handed Corbyn a gift. It allowed him to frame his fifth conference address as Labour leader — received to rapturous applause in the hall, with little sign of members’ affection having waned over Europe or any other issue — in terms of what he is not, rather than what many voters might think he is. 

Predictably, the beginning, end and much of the middle was devoted to Boris Johnson, who Corbyn described variously as a reckless no-dealer, “born to rule”, the leader of a “government of the entitled” and “elite that disdains democracy”, a haver of “wealthy friends”, and a scion of the establishment.

The intent — and effect — is to do two things: remind voters of Johnson’s Brexit policy, and remind them that he is a Conservative like any other.

The latter is a message to precisely the sort of voters that Johnson believes will pave his path to a parliamentary majority: Leavers in Labour constituencies in northern England and the Midlands. Once this sort of voter is reminded that Johnson is a Tory, they tend not to prove as susceptible to his electoral offer as their Brexit preference might suggest. They were also reminded that Labour intends to pour even more cash into their infrastructure and public services than Johnson. 

The former betrays the leadership’s hope, if not expectation, that in the event of a first-past-the-post election, voters will recognise Corbyn’s Labour as the only viable alternative to a Conservative government. The argument that Labour makes in that campaign is likely to look a lot like that Corbyn made today.

As far as that mission is concerned, the decision to move the speech forward a day — and top-load it with anti-Johnson rhetoric — is particularly shrewd. Corbyn’s criticisms of the prime minister are guaranteed slots in every TV and radio news bulletin this evening, and will inevitably muscle out the likes of Jo Swinson. 

The speech also revealed just how the leadership intends to finesse the Brexit position agreed by conference yesterday — the policy of pre-election neutrality that Remainers inside and outside of the Labour Party have denounced as a fudge. It was, Corbyn said, leaning into that common complaint, not at all complicated. 

Criticising both the Conservatives (for their support of no-deal) and the Liberal Democrats (for their policy of Article 50 revocation), Corbyn cast Labour as the party of democracy. Yet he also pledged to implement either possible result as prime minister — a form of words that will allow the likes of Keir Starmer to argue that Labour will very quickly become a Remain government with a straighter face than they might have otherwise been able to. 

Elsewhere, the domestic policy offer was familiar - and next to nothing of it new. To say it had a defining theme would probably be too generous, as has been the case with this year’s conference as a whole. In 2018, every speech and announcement fed into and reinforced the message the leadership wanted to send: that Labour was the party that would restore a sense of economic purpose to the parts of Britain that voted to Leave in 2016. This year, there has been no such unity of purpose or coordination of messaging.

But in framing his speech as a response to today’s events, and, by extension, the things Remainers and Labour voters most dislike about Johnson and the Conservatives, Corbyn ensured that none of that will necessarily matter in terms of what people at home will see or hear: the leader of the Labour Party criticising a conventional Conservative prime minister over Brexit. The big gamble of his approach is in its assumption that the coming election will play out in those terms, rather than as a straight Remain versus Leave fight.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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