Corbyn misses a trick
While Labour prioritises blocking a no-deal Brexit, writes Eddie Ford, it has failed to respond in a principled way to Tory confessions of drug use
With the first round of voting in the Tory leadership contest due to take place on June 13, and 10 eager candidates in the race, events are already taking a dramatic turn - always expect the unexpected, when it comes to Brexit.
Last week, leadership hopeful Dominic Raab caused quite a stir when he refused to rule out proroguing (suspending) parliament in order to force through Brexit, in the belief that that this would somehow strengthen the UK’s negotiating position in Brussels. According to another candidate, Esther McVey, proroguing was part of a “toolkit” that could be used to ensure Brexit is delivered by the October 31 deadline set by the European Union.
Of course, Raab is perfectly right on one level. The parliamentary arithmetic just does not add up for a no-deal Brexit, or possibly any sort of Brexit at all, no matter who the Tories elect as leader. Whatever way you voted in the 2016 referendum, the general election result of the following year meant that Brexit was not going to happen - parliamentary gridlock. You had Theresa May and her contradictory ‘red lines’, saying you can have an open border on the island of Ireland and be outside the EU’s customs union and single market - something else that does not stack up. Hence we ended up with May’s attempt at Brino (‘Brexit in name only’) - a pointless exercise if ever there was one. Inevitably, this proved totally unsatisfactory for both Brexit hardliners and many remainers or soft Brexiteers - leading to the biggest defeat in parliamentary history (230 votes) for the prime minister’s dog’s dinner withdrawal agreement.
Naturally, the remarks from Raab and McVey about proroguing parliament elicited a furious response. John Bercow, the redoubtable speaker of the House of Commons, bluntly retorted that it is “simply not going to happen”. Equally outraged (and reflecting widespread opinion among Tory MPs), Rory Stewart, another leadership contender, denounced any such move as “unconstitutional”, “undemocratic” and “illegal”. Whether that is strictly true or not is a matter of debate. Sir Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, told the cabinet that suspending parliament to allow a no-deal Brexit is not illegal - merely “unconstitutional” and “improper”.
Andrea ‘Loathsome’ Leadsom rushed in to say that proroguing parliament was neither workable nor necessary, as parliament had now run out of ways of blocking a no-deal Brexit.1 She might have spoken far too soon, however, as the Labour Party appeared to throw something of a curveball by tabling a motion to try to stop a future prime minister pushing through anything against the wishes of parliament.
The motion was signed off by Jeremy Corbyn, Ian Blackford (SNP), Vince Cable (Liberal Democrats), Liz Saville-Roberts (Plaid Cymru), Caroline Lucas (Green Party) and - who else? - Oliver Letwin, the veteran Tory MP. Outlining the reasoning and echoing comments by Bercow, Labour’s Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer declared that MPs “cannot be bystanders” while the next prime minister “tries to crash the UK out of the European Union without a deal and without the consent of the British people”. However, the motion was narrowly defeated.
Of course, this only makes it even more likely that prime minister Boris Johnson (or whoever) will call a snap general election in the hope of hoovering up Nigel Farage’s voter base, beat the ‘fence-sitting’ Jeremy Corbyn, and secure a Brexit mandate from the British people in a reconfigured parliament: something that the departing prime minister spectacularly failed to do two years ago. To this end, a Daily Telegraph commissioned poll from ComRes asked how people would vote with alternative candidates as leader. You will not be too shocked to discover that Boris Johnson came out on top, the polling suggesting he could produce a Commons majority of 140 for the Tories, whilst under all his rivals there would be a hung parliament.
Obviously this finding needs to be taken with a mountain-sized pinch of salt, but there is very little doubt that Johnson has most appeal to former Tories who are currently supporting Farage’s Brexit Party. Many appear to be returning home in droves - party membership seems to have increased in recent months from about 120,000 to 160,000, even if some parts of the media and remainer Tory MPs stupidly call the newcomers ‘infiltrators’. On the other hand, the Tories probably cannot win a general election with this group alone - they need a leader able to attract swing voters, who are neither committed ‘leavers’ nor ‘remainers’.
Meanwhile, over the next two weeks, all 313 Tory MPs will take part in a series of ballots to whittle down the contenders one by one until only two are left - assuming we do not have another coronation, that is. The party rank and file will then pick a winner in a postal ballot, with the result being announced in the penultimate week of July - it goes without saying that Johnson will win by a landslide if his name gets onto the final ballot paper.
Since announcing he was running for leader four weeks ago Johnson has only given one newspaper interview. His ‘submarine strategy’ has clearly been devised by his team with the idea of keeping him out of trouble - just one ill-chosen remark or attempted joke could sink his campaign. But that is the nature of leadership contests, which is exactly why Tories instinctively prefer a coronation - wanting to avoid damaging TV debates where all the candidates risk making themselves look like complete idiots.
But Johnson finally broke his purdah on June 12, when he officially launched his leadership campaign, taking questions from journalists. He tried to come across as serious and businesslike, but he was unable to give a straight answer when asked whether he would resign if Britain still remained in the EU after October 31.
Significantly, he refused to confirm whether he had taken cocaine as a student even though in 2007 he had told GQ magazine that he had. He merely replied that he did “not want to be blown off track”, as he is “focusing on his vision for the future”.
Johnson’s tetchy response to this question takes place in the context of Michael Gove’s recent cocaine confession - which for a brief while overshadowed the leadership debate. Gove, needless to say, really really “regrets” taking cocaine on “several occasions” when he was a journalist 20 years ago. You can guarantee that he particularly regrets the claims in the Mail on Sunday that he hosted a ‘drugs party’ at his Mayfair flat just hours after writing an article condemning “middle-class professionals”, who “may be able to live with, manage and control drug use, much as they have grown used to managing adultery”. Nothing hypocritical about that, is there?
Nor is there anything hypocritical about endorsing a government policy of banning teachers for life from the profession if they take class A drugs like cocaine - banish the very thought. And there is definitely nothing a bit shifty about taking legal advice from a QC regarding the visa waiver form for entry into the United States, which asks, “Have you ever violated any law related to possessing, using or distributing illegal drugs?” Our honourable QC, unlike everybody else, is “satisfied that Michael completed his forms correctly”. After all, it would be a little humiliating for a British prime minister to be forbidden entry to the US because of past drugs misdemeanours.
Gove’s confession was, of course, not the result of a sudden desire to come clean - it was about news management, as is normally the case in such situations. Next month a biography of him will be published by Owen Bennett - Michael Gove: man in a hurry (so pre-order now to avoid disappointment)2.
There were similar revelations about other leadership contenders. For example, Jeremy Hunt had drunk cannabis lassi whilst backpacking in India and Rory Stewart had smoked opium at a wedding in Iran. While Sajid Javid has never taken anything illegal, Dominic Raab, Andrea Leadsom and Matt Hancock had all tried cannabis when students - but that is all, of course. Esther McVey too took “some pot” when she was younger. Boris Johnson claimed has was offered a “white substance” at university, but none went up his nose, because he unfortunately sneezed - he had no idea whether it was cocaine or icing sugar.3
When questioned about this matter, the non-drinking, non-smoking, committed vegetarian and allotment holder, Jeremy Corbyn, said he was not concerned about Michael Gove’s past. Frankly, Corbyn missed a trick, as he does so often - here is a stick to give the Tories a good beating (not to mention the social reactionaries within his own party). Yes, drugs were illegal 20 years ago when Gove was a hardworking journalist, and unfortunately still are. As a consequence, young people - especially the poor and black - are being given a criminal record and not a few find themselves banged up: in 2016 102,000 were sentenced for drugs offences and over 9,000 jailed.
What Jeremy Corbyn should be demanding is the legalisation of all drugs currently criminalised - not just cannabis - so they can be quality-controlled and regulated just like alcohol. You should know exactly what you are taking: its strength, ingredients, impurities, etc. In that way people can relax and have fun with the drugs of their choice - it should not be a matter of criminal law. But drearily the advice from Seamus Milne and the others wrapped around Corbyn is to play it safe and ignore controversial issues - just stick to the NHS and austerity.
Now, it might be true that in and of itself the public does not care two hoots whether some MP took cocaine, LSD or cannabis 20 years ago. But it is a real problem when they vote to keep it criminal l
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