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Know your enemy: Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit test

From his vantage point, the time between now and the March 29 decision deadline is one hell of a long time—a whole nine weeks, more or less, in which he will be under enormous pressure to declare precisely where he stands.

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Credit: Sophie J. Brown/Flickr.
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Credit: Sophie J. Brown/Flickr.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

They used to call them “pea-soupers:” dense, choking fogs caused by smoke from burning coal that frequently enveloped London until the middle of the last century, leaving a person unable, according to legend, to see further than their outstretched hands. That more or less describes the situation of the British people with regard to their impending departure, Brexit, from the European Union.

Those Jews outside the United Kingdom who are following the Brexit debacle with particular interest are probably concerned that, from somewhere within the depths of this political fog, there’s the possibility that Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will become prime minister. They are concerned because Corbyn has presided over his party’s emergence as—to quote Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May during this week’s House of Commons debate on Labour’s no-confidence motion in her government—“the banner under which racists and bigots whose worldview is dominated by a hatred of Jews could gather.”

I’m not going to rule out the prospect of Corbyn becoming prime minister of the United Kingdom, if only because nothing can be ruled out at this moment. But I am going to argue that getting there will require Corbyn to navigate a road more twisted and strewn with obstacles than his many adversaries around the world might appreciate.

To begin with, despite being blessed with the kind of political opportunity that most opposition leaders pray for—in this case, the crushing of May’s Brexit plan by the largest House of Commons majority against a British government in nearly a century—not one single political pundit or member of parliament gave a second thought to the idea that Corbyn might actually win the no-confidence vote the following day. And sure enough, Corbyn’s motion lost by the predicted margin, as the rebel Conservatives and Northern Ireland Unionists, who only 24 hours earlier inflicted abject humiliation upon the prime minister, came to her rescue so as not to risk a Corbyn government.

Ah, people will say, but these are distinctly abnormal times in Britain, and that’s why May’s government survived. To say that, and nothing more, is to coddle Corbyn with a generosity that he does not deserve. Being singularly unable to bring down the weakest government the British people have known in their lifetime is a sign of his profound political failure. As each day passes, he is less likely to realize his goal of a general election.

All of which means that Corbyn has to think and talk about a subject he would rather avoid: Brexit. It’s here that we get to one of the Monty Pythonesque ironies of this mess. Theresa May, who supported remaining in the European Union, leads a party whose majority is clamoring to leave. But for Corbyn, who personally loathes the E.U. as a bankers club that ultimately serves American corporate and national security interests, it’s the other way around.

Now that he can’t shift the public focus by forcing a general election, Corbyn is effectively boxed into the Brexit debate. Each option available to him carries significant risks.

If Corbyn backs a deal that sees Britain remaining in a customs union with the E.U.—an outcome that the pro-Brexit camp believes is just as bad as remaining in the E.U. itself—he has to go against his own hard-left political leanings, as well as subject himself to the scorn of the working class, pro-Brexit voters that he believes can be won back to the Labour Party. If he comes out against a second referendum on Brexit—a position for which there is strong support throughout Labour’s ranks—he has to contend with potentially alienating the younger voters who want Britain to remain inside the E.U. If he decides to put country before party by joining May in negotiating a cross-party consensus on a revised Brexit deal—a task that is nearly impossible—he may find himself making compromises he wished he hadn’t in order to prop up a dying Conservative government.

None of these avenues provides Corbyn with a clear means of escaping the Brexit debate, so that he can channel, as one of his leading supporters explained to The New York Times, “the existing economic anger and, rather than mobilizing it against migrants, mobilize it against elites and the establishment that have rigged the economy.” As long as the subject remains Brexit, then Corbyn will be feeling queasy.

Corbyn’s present position is that he wants May to guarantee that a no-deal Brexit will be avoided, but without having to participate in the negotiations himself. The deadline for a final deal with the E.U. is March 29, which is why there is so much hair-pulling going on in London and Brussels as the clock winds down. But from Corbyn’s vantage point, that’s one hell of a long time from now; a whole nine weeks, more or less, in which he will be under enormous pressure to declare precisely where he stands. If he fails this coming test, his leadership of the Labour Party might not survive.

But before you start feeling too optimistic, even if Corbyn was somehow ousted as Labour leader, it’s still unlikely to mean an end to the anti-Semitism that has scarred his party. Indeed, as things stand now, his successor would probably come from the same hard-left factions that produced Corbyn himself. This is the new era of British politics, and its pernicious challenges, currently exemplified by Corbyn, will outlast him.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in “Commentary,” “the New York Post,” “Haaretz,” “The Wall Street Journal” and many other publications.

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