Britain is not ready for a crackpot experiment of socialism in one country
Corbyn’s economic manifesto is a boon to Johnson’s campaign
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses the audience during the launch of Labour’s environmental policy on November 28, 2019 in Southampton, England. ohnson, has so far refused to take part. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)
You might say the lunatics are running the asylum. The pattern of Europe’s elections has seen old elites buffeted and battered by populist insurgents. In the UK’s case, the extremists have taken charge of the governing parties. The choice at the coming election is between the pinched English nationalism of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and the far-left socialism of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
Received wisdom is that this will be a hinge election - one of those moments that sets a nation’s course for a generation. Anyone who cares about Britain’s future will sincerely hope that it is otherwise. The campaign has marked out a contest between parties peddling competing fantasies and falsehoods. The sane answer as to which of the two leaders counts as fit for the office of prime minister is neither of the above.
Mr Johnson’s career rests on casual mendacity. After ousting Theresa May a few months ago he made one solemn pledge. There could be no ifs or buts, he said. No excuses. Come what may, Britain would leave the EU on October 31. Many remarked at the time that, given the parliamentary arithmetic, this was a hostage to fortune. Mr Johnson’s retort was that he would “die in a ditch” rather than renege. The deadline has passed and Britain is still a member of the EU.
This breach of trust looks trivial when set against his latest pronouncements. Brexit represents the most fundamental upheaval in the life of the nation since the dissolution of empire. For Mr Johnson it is no more than an “oven-ready” loaf of bread. All that is required is that voters supply him a parliamentary majority to “pop it in the microwave”. By the end of January, a “free” Britain will be heading for the sunlit uplands of life beyond Brexit.
In reality, of course, signing off on the withdrawal agreement with the EU27 would settle nothing beyond the terms of the divorce. The shape of the future relationship, critical to prosperity, will depend on a second set of negotiations. The Treasury’s calculations show even the most favourable outcome carries a heavy cost in lost growth, investment and jobs. Mr Johnson has ordered the figures be kept secret.
To map a path back into No 10 the prime minister has sought to outflank Nigel Farage’s Brexit party on the nationalist far-right. So the Tory manifesto fixes December 31 2020 as the final date for completion of a trade deal with Brussels. This new deadline repeats the elementary mistake made by Mrs May when she rushed to open Article 50 negotiations. It invites the EU27 to run down the clock. Mr Johnson will be left with the option of a bare-bones accord that excludes Britain’s service industries, or of crashing out without a deal.
In any other circumstances one would say that the voters were far too sensible to fall for such a charlatan. Mr Johnson, though, has powerful allies. The first is a national mood of exhaustion and irritation. His ever repeated promise to “get Brexit done” is as infantilising as it is mendacious, but it taps into the frustration among those who backed Leave in the 2016 referendum.
Mr Johnson’s trump card, however, is Mr Corbyn. Labour’s economic prospectus, with its promises of lavish spending increases on any public service you care to think of, punitive taxes on the rich and nationalisation of state utilities does strike a populist chord. After a decade of Tory austerity, who wouldn’t vote for the free, superfast broadband promised for every household in the land? And it surely makes sense to invest in decaying infrastructure when interest rates are at zero.
Taken together, however, the Labour proposals amount to a package as fanciful as Mr Johnson’s half-baked Brexit. Britain operates in an open international economy. Governments cannot expect global markets and businesses to be indifferent to swingeing increases in tax and the state appropriation of private businesses. The inescapable implication of Mr Corbyn’s plan is a siege economy buttressed by capital and import controls. Britain is not ready for a crackpot experiment of socialism in one country.
Against all the odds, Mr Johnson wins on the character question. The latest polling from Ipsos Mori shows the prime minister with a personal rating of minus 14 per cent (47 per cent take an unfavourable view and 33 per cent approve). At any other time that would be enough to consign him to permanent opposition. But Mr Corbyn wins the unpopularity stakes by some margin with a rating of minus 35 per cent (59 per cent versus 24 per cent).
On one level this is probably no more than a cultural preference for duplicitous braggadocio over self-regarding piety. But it also speaks to the hypocrisy of a politician who has allowed anti-Semitism to flourish among his far-left supporters and whose instincts in foreign policy are always to side with authoritarian regimes against the west. A self-styled champion of the poor and oppressed, Mr Corbyn is also an apologist for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and an unabashed admirer of repressive regimes in Cuba and Venezuela. The voters are not stupid.
Unsurprisingly, the polls show Mr Johnson to be well ahead, helped also by the failure of the Liberal Democrats to mount an effective campaign from the pro-European political centre ground. Nothing is decided, though, until the votes are cast on December 12. The hope of those who wish Britain well must be that this remains the case after the votes have been counted.
Philip Stephens is a columnist with the Financial Times