First of all, since my last Uncut column, it is no exaggeration to say that British politics has been turned upside down by the win of Leave in the Brexit referendum. Barring some kind of monumental U-turn, Britain is on its way out of the EU. In the resulting whirlwind, it is difficult to keep pace with the rapidly-changing landscape.
Aside from the immediate and dire economic fallout from the decision itself, to have a PM resign, mass Shadow Cabinet resignations and a Leader of the Opposition deserted by the vast majority of his MPs in a confidence vote – all in the same week – is surely unprecedented.
Most bizarrely of all, while millions of Leave voters are apparently now regretting their decision, barely any of the winning Leave campaign politicians are now placed for much of a role in carrying out Britain’s transition to its post-EU future. Neither does there appear to be even a sketchy plan. It is as if neither the campaign’s leaders, nor its followers, ever really expected to win.
But this is a Labour blog: let us now turn to the impact of all this on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Corbyn has blamed by many, not unfairly, for the contribution of his lacklustre campaign to Remain’s defeat. But it has also been a convenient moment to mount a challenge to what has so far been a disastrous leadership anyway, at least in terms of engaging with the British electorate.
Hence the mass resignations from the Shadow government – plus the sacking of Hilary Benn for perceived disloyalty – which followed a few days after the vote. But things have not stopped there: it is still thought likely that one of Angela Eagle MP or Owen Smith MP will challenge Corbyn, though the smoke signals from the PLP aren’t exactly clear.
Then, last Tuesday, a no-confidence vote was passed against Corbyn, with over 80% of the party’s MPs expressing no confidence in his leadership. That a party leader should suffer such a vote and not stand down is, in itself, unprecedented.
Then, as if things were not going badly enough for Corbyn, there was last Friday’s launch of the Shami Chakrabarti report into anti-Semitism in the Labour party.
In his own speech, which largely sent the right message, for once, on anti-Semitism, he then astonishingly contrived to torpedo any such positive impact bycomparing ISIS with Israel. The defence given by his spokesman was that he did not say “so-called Islamic State” but “so-called Islamic States”, meaning any state, presumably, with an Islamist government.
Let’s be clear. This is not merely disingenuous, but bordering on the pathetic: you do not describe as a “so-called Islamic State” the governments of Saudi Arabia of Iran. A nation state is Islamic or it is not, they are not “so-called”. No-one refers to “Islamic States” as a generic group, either. It was a piece of flimsy weaselling, for which Emily Thornberry, the incoming Shadow Foreign Secretary, then had to apologise to the Israeli Ambassador anyway. And if there was no mistake, why apologise?
But it was also at that launch that Momentum activist Marc Wadsworth – not even a party member, by all accounts – chose to launch a verbal attack on Jewish MP Ruth Smeeth MP. It was not just insulting, but reflected a classic anti-Semitic trope: that she was in collusion with the media.
Smeeth left the meeting in tears, but there was no intervention by Corbyn, no comment. Worse still, he was observed after the meeting smiling and joking with Wadsworth (watch here, hat-tip to John Woodcock MP).
Finally, Corbyn was brilliantly skewered in his appearance before the Home Office Select Committee into admitting that he knew Wadsworth well enough to have his mobile number (from 16:42:00), and several times refusing to condemn as racist the comments made. A somewhat uncomfortable thing to have to admit for a party leader: you are well-acquainted with the unpleasant heckler that just exploded your press conference.
All this, remember, at the launch of an initiative designed to put to bed people’s fears that the historically anti-racist Labour Party was rapidly becoming a racist-tolerant collective. It could scarcely have been worse.
So, Britain has suddenly lurched into a crisis and the Leave camp has unexpectedly been vacated by Johnson and Farage. Even Gove, the other campaign leader has been dumped out of the Tory leadership race. The figures who were in charge yesterday are mostly gone or sidelined and British politics is experiencing a yawning power vacuum.
Meanwhile, the Labour party is in meltdown and its leader, who still refuses to go, is indelibly tainted with the unpleasant – and sometimes openly anti-Semitic – views of the company he keeps.
But he hangs on. Virtually every party figure is demanding he go, even former leader Neil Kinnock. Meanwhile, the two MPs most likely to challenge, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, seem maddeningly unable to agree who will stand. Furthermore, in organising talks with union leaders about the way forward, Deputy Leader Tom Watson seems intent on fuelling the delaying tactics of the Corbynites, in the hope that the idea of a leadership challenge might lose momentum and fizzle out.
It would be a grimly positive thing to see this moment, with Corbyn visibly on the ropes, as some kind of nadir for the party. But unless he admits the unviability of his position and goes very soon, it will not be.
That is to say, a Labour split comparable to that of the 1980s is no longer unthinkable.
This post first published at Labour Uncut