If Jeremy Corbyn cannot lead a national unity government, he must still shape it

The Labour leader should insist on becoming deputy prime minister and seek to thwart the creation of a new centrist party. 

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The legal text of the proposed Brexit deal has not been seen. Not by the British parliament and not by any of the 27 EU member governments. If we were dealing with honest politicians that might not matter: but Angela Merkel knows Boris Johnson is neither honest nor competent. 

That's why - if the reports are correct - she told the Prime Minister that if Britain wants to leave the customs union, Northern Ireland has to stay inside it. Otherwise it is impossible to do a deal that guarantees peace in Ireland.

All the regulatory “innovation” and promised technological fixes in Johnson's as yet unseen proposal founder on this problem. And that's why the deal is dead. None of the threats briefed to the Spectator by a senior No 10 source (most likely Dominic Cummings) have worked: the threat to defy the Benn act, the courts and the Queen; the threat to cease security cooperation with any EU state that grants an extension; the threat to campaign for a straight no-deal in the coming general election. All made to no effect, apart from burning Britain's geopolitical capital in Europe.

So what comes next? Parliament is powerless so long as the opposition parties, including the group of 21 former Tories, have no unified purpose. And MPs who want to avoid no deal are split three ways. The Labour leadership, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens want an election first and are prepared to form a five-week interim government to ensure it is held under free and fair conditions. The Lib Dems, the Independent Group for Change, the Tory rebels and many former Labour MPs want a referendum first, to be called by a six-month interim government led by a neutral figure.

Meanwhile, 19 Labour MPs in pro-Brexit constituencies are prepared to sign any deal on offer, including the one proposed by Johnson, which would sell workers’ rights and the anti-Unionist community down the river. In this, they are the true inheritors of Labour’s right-wing tradition, which for decades has exchanged principles for power.

How it pans out depends on sequencing, power and the tactical acumen of political leaders. Faced with the inevitability of obeying the Benn act, Johnson has already instructed government lawyers to say that it will be respected. So he can either resign after the European Council concludes on 18 October, asking the Queen to send for Jeremy Corbyn, or he can prevaricate and face a vote of no confidence on 21 October, which could oblige the Queen to send for Corbyn.

It's worth considering here why Corbyn as prime minister is a red line for so many centrist politicians from the political elite. It would be naive to assume they fear merely that he would “gain credibility”, handing party advantage to Labour. The real fear is that, for the first time in the history of this country, a man not attached to the unwritten rules of the establishment gets to see the intelligence: he gets to see what really happened in Iraq; what we are really doing in Syria; the real extent of foreign oligarchic power and organised crime being exercised in the City and via speculative property deals.

And he gets the power of patronage. Tony Blair, upon achieving office, was surprised to find literally thousands of appointments were within his gift - from lord lieutenants of various counties to the bosses of the BBC, the Bank of England and numerous quangoes. At a single stroke, the twin systems of patronage and omerta would be accidentally broken. 

There is no prospect of people who have served the power nexus of British capital for a lifetime allowing a true representative of the working class into Downing Street without a fight. It follows from this that, given the parliamentary arithmetic, the size of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) in the coming coalition counts for nothing. In a government including Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Chuka Umunna, Jo Swinson and Anna Soubry, it is they - the most right-wing elements - who will set the limits on what it does. The 19 right-wing Labour MPs formally signed up, and numerous others in their periphery, will simply add weight to the forces trying to stop Corbyn.

So Labour people need to be realistic. It is in our interest to trigger an election before we get a referendum. But the referendum is our key electoral promise, and it's what most of the forces to the right of us want. And it's in the interests of all democrats to terminate this government of national disunity.

So to the sequence. Corbyn goes to Buckingham Palace on 21 October. He spends 24 hours trying to form a government, but it will be clear that, even if the Lib Dems come around to it, the Tory rebels and former Labour independents won’t. So he probably fails.

At that point, we should spend no time hand-wringing or issuing denunciations. The momentum will, if we allow it, pass back to Johnson. “Corbyn fails” will be the headline, together with even more scare tactics. Johnson will squat in Downing Street. So by 23 October at the latest, Labour needs to be engaged in the formation of a broad, interim coalition headed by a neutral figure. But the key is to limit its lifetime and its scope.

It's clear what the centrist fantasy consists of: a six-month technocratic government, not just headed by some old-guard figure but substantially staffed by centrists. Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell, Sally Morgan et al, stand ready to reoccupy Whitehall, while lifetime non-entities from the Lib Dem backbenches get to hold ministerial red boxes.

Once the referendum is held, and won, they will say: “look, technocratic government is good. And here's a new centrist party we've created to support the interim government, and - by the way - here's a new, young leader for it to replace the old buffer who held the fort.” Once the money and media operations of the centre right pour in, that new party would act like a magnet to members of the PLP who cannot live with Corbynism.

The strategic task for Labour - once no deal is off the agenda - is to avoid the emergence of a long-term technocratic government and the formation of a Macron-lite centrist party around it. In their own way, the SNP, Plaid and the Greens also have an interest in stopping that.

To do this our MPs may need to enter a coalition headed by a neutral figure that is not Corbyn. But inside that coalition, we must insist that the majority of ministers are Labour, and that they have full access to the intelligence and the levers of power appropriate for their portfolios. 

Corbyn himself would have to be at least deputy prime minister and an overtly political machinery of government change would be needed to recreate an office (akin to John Prescott’s Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) that could employ all the staff currently employed on Short Money working for Corbyn.

The coalition agreement should stipulate that an election will be called before Christmas - either on 28 November or 5 December. That is not what the centrists want but, in the flurry of negotiations that will begin after the European Council, there is a way to secure their consent.

Next week, MPs should take control of the parliamentary order paper and pass legislation scheduling a definitive Brexit referendum for mid-March 2020. Then, once the interim government is formed, it will be mandated by legislation to begin preparations for that referendum - i.e. naming the date, empowering the Electoral Commission and so on. The Leave option on the ballot paper would be whatever the incoming government can negotiate, with Theresa May’s deal as a fallback - so hard Brexit would be avoided in all circumstances and no deal taken off the agenda.

If Johnson wants to campaign for no deal, then good luck to Conservative candidates on the doorsteps of Bolton West and Swindon South, where Tory-minded swing voters will understand the threat to their livelihoods. If Johnson wants to stop the referendum, he has to win a majority. He would try to make the snap election all about Brexit but every other party - and all impartial media titles - would be obliged to say: for the rest of us, that issue is sorted.

The danger is that the “referendum first” and “election first” factions of anti-Tory MPs are in danger of becoming tribally defined, like the Little-Endians in Gulliver's Travels. Yet all have an interest in getting Johnson out of Downing Street. If we can't bounce Grieve and Swinson into backing Corbyn, then a short, Labour-dominated interim government, with enabling legislation for a second referendum already on the statue book, is the best way to achieve this.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.