‘So what,” the schoolboy son of a friend asked, while being forced to listen to the Today programme on the school run, “was politics before Brexit?”
This brought back memories of my own naive inquiry of my father at the end of the second world war: “Will there be any more news, Daddy?” Not too enlightened for an embryonic journalist, but you can see the point.
Many people, not least your correspondent, are concerned about the way the threat of Brexit has been diverting attention from a host of economic and social problems. Yet the focus on Brexit is necessary, because if it were allowed to go ahead, in any form, it would magnify those domestic problems, and be almost bound to have a deleterious impact on international relations.
As it is, I am lost in admiration for the way our European partners have put up with our ministers making juvenile complaints about them – for all the world as if the other 27 had made a request to abandon us, rather than the reverse.
As one of my Brussels contacts wrote to me in a New Year message: “We are watching with hard-to-describe feelings.”
Now, in common, I imagine, with many others, I find myself watching the behaviour of the leader of the Labour party with hard-to-describe feelings. My feelings towards some of his colleagues are easier to describe. It is obvious that Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, has been doing his level best to try to knock some sense into Corbyn. The latter’s recent revelation in the Guardian to my colleague Heather Stewart that, if elected prime minister he planned to go ahead with Brexit, was deeply offensive to the vast majority of Labour members, who are Remainers.
Perhaps Corbyn thinks he has been playing a clever game, keeping the Leave minority of Labour voters on board. However, this is at the expense of alienating the vast majority.
Given the popular view that the referendum result was principally swayed by the discontent of the “left behind” and those with “nothing to lose”, I was interested in the point Corbyn made last week that the left-behind in Mansfield may have voted Leave but the left-behind in Tottenham elected to Remain.
But what do you make of a so-called leader of the opposition who “cannot wish away the votes of 17 million people who wanted to leave”? What this means, given the preponderance of Labour people who voted to remain, is that a Labour leader affects to be swayed more by the Conservative supporters whose government he wishes to dislodge. It is as if, in the early 1980s, he would have opted for Thatcherism, or sado-monetarism, because more Conservatives voted for what the Conservative government of that era became.
Corbyn is a walking and talking disaster. Just imagine how different things would be now if the increasingly impressive Yvette Cooper had beaten him to the Labour leadership. She is right to back an extension to article 50 – a move also championed by the estimable Lord Kerr, who, when in the Foreign Office, actually drafted article 50.
Bad business, referendums, creating the opportunity for the surfacing of discontents that often have nothing to do with the nominal issue at hand. And I keep having to remind people that a host of very prosperous people voted Leave, for reasons best known to themselves.
Nevertheless, bad business though referendums may be, it seems to me that we are moving towards the need for yet another – a referendum to end referendums.
Now, as Robert Shrimsley observes in the Financial Times, a second referendum requires Corbyn’s support, but “that support is not forthcoming since he is not interested in stopping Brexit, only in bringing down the government”. But the truth that dare not speak its name is that, in the face of the worst Conservative government most people can remember, Labour should be 20 or 30 points ahead in the polls. One has an awful suspicion that Corbyn is incapable of winning an election anyway.
Good luck to Starmer, Cooper, Hilary Benn and others in trying to bring their leader to his senses. He it was who decreed that Labour party policy should be determined by the members. I don’t know Corbyn’s taste in music, but my friend the impresario Lee Menzies recently reminded me of that Ira Gershwin line: “Let’s call the whole thing off.”
William Keegan’s new book, Nine Crises – Fifty Years of Covering the British Economy From Devaluation To Brexit, will be published by Biteback on Thursday 24 January