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11 May 2017

Commons Confidential: Diane “Abacus” Abbott’s explosion

Labour shadow home secretary's gaffe failed to overshadow May's Brexit bombshell

By Kevin Maguire

The Labour leader’s acceptance that he’s Marmite with the voters extends to keeping a black-and-yellow jar with “Corbyn” stuck over the divisive food paste’s label. The renamed Marmite jar, and a wooden elephant that he’s fond of pointing to when a roomful of aides tiptoe around an obvious problem that the team is reluctant to discuss, signal a level of self-awareness that Jezza isn’t often given credit for.

Corbyn is under pressure from the recovering Marxist John McDonnell and the staff of the leader’s office – whose jobs depend on him – to cling on should Labour lose, however badly. Corbyn came close to resigning during last summer’s attempted coup but his mind changed on a car trip with the deputy leader, Tom Watson. Could Corbyn follow David Cameron, who vowed publicly to remain in No 10 yet privately knew he’d be Brexit toast?

In election campaigns, a party marches on its stomach and Patrick McLoughlin is on the permanently ravenous side of politics. The Tory chairman was observed entering the Two Chairmen public house – little more than “strong and stable” slogan-shouting distance from Conservative HQ – with Theresa May’s Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, and a person unknown to my snout. McLoughlin ordered three pints and four bags of crisps: an imbalanced round, suggesting that the former coal miner favours solid returns over floating results. He did share.

Best-laid plans and all that, when Diane “Abacus” Abbott’s innumeracy added up to a law-and-disorder issue for Labour. The party brought forward her policing announcement by 24 hours so it wouldn’t be overshadowed by Theresa May’s visit to Buckingham Palace (and, as it transpired, her claims of Zinoviev-style interference in a British election). Labour strategists wished they had kept Jon Ashworth axing hospital closures for the Tuesday, but wonder if the Tories would have delayed May’s Brexit detonation if Abacus had also exploded on her scheduled Wednesday morning. The good news for Abbott: she has joined May, Boris Johnson and Corbyn on the list of politicians whom electors recognise. The bad news: Labour candidates think that she’s a vote-losing doorstep issue.

The election adds to the woes of Gerard Coyne, Unite’s suspended West Midlands secretary who failed to topple Len McCluskey. Supporters in Labour plotted to parachute Coyne into a safe seat until May’s snap contest left him dangling.

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Mischief-makers wrongly claimed that Corbyn voted for Brexit but his refusal to pull Labour candidates in favour of a progressive alliance prompted a veteran Labourite to whisper he’d been told that Jezza voted Green in the 1999 European elections in disgust at Blairism.

This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning