Not much fun for Jezza in the job he never wanted
Jeremy Corbyn is a nice but dim guy who is almost comically out of his depth, says Ruth Dudley Edwards
Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30
With biblical scenes of exodus and tragedy facing us every day and with the looming prospect of the EU lumbering incompetently into its last chaotic days, we need light relief. Step forward, Jeremy Corbyn.
There will be plenty of time to consider soberly the implications for the British political system of Corbyn's election as leader of the UK Labour Party, but just for now, let's look at Jezza's first week.
The guy is in shock. He's possibly the only person in the entire House of Commons who never aspired to be Prime Minister. He's there because John McDonnell, who is as clever and ruthless as Jezza isn't, made him stand.
When Labour have leadership elections, the parliamentary party's Socialist Campaign Group (whose membership is usually in single figures) always puts up a candidate.
McDonnell is deeply unpopular in the House of Commons, and so failed to get on the ballot paper in 2007 and 2010, when he stepped aside for his ally, the loquacious and self-promoting Diane Abbott. She garnered enough votes from MPs anxious to broaden the field beyond white males to squeak across the threshold: in the ensuing election she got seven votes out of 266.
This time, McDonnell explained afterwards, when the little cabal met, "I said I wouldn't do it…We turned to Jeremy and said: 'Come on, it is your turn, you have a go'." "'All right, all right', he said, 'I'll do it. I'll have a go.'"
That's how Corbyn works. He believes in consensual decisions. But in his 32 years as an MP, his decision-making has been in tiny groups of the like-minded, where the big decision is whether to hold their next anti-imperialist protest on Tuesday or Wednesday. He hasn't a clue how to deal with opposition.
Because they thought a lively party debate mattered, some MPs who thought Corbyn a fruitcake were among those who nominated him. And for myriad reasons, not least the shock of the 2015 electoral humiliation, the lacklustre performances of the three other candidates, because his party in its soul felt ashamed of the Blair years, because Ed Miliband's mad new rules had increased trade union power and introduced a three-quid franchise, and because there is a great desire for some kind of new politics, sincere, principled Jeremy stormed to victory.
Now everything this earnest man does is cruelly scrutinised. Suddenly, he has to construct an opposition from a group of demoralised MPs, 90pc of whom are horrified by his election and whose leading lights have walked away. And the first announcement on the Shadow Cabinet caused an uproar because the big jobs had all gone to white, middle-aged men.
On Saturday he was on TV singing the Red Flag and on Tuesday remained silent during God Save the Queen at a service in honour of the Battle of Britain. Pause, readers, and imagine what would happen in Ireland to a new party leader who didn't sing the national anthem. The reaction was less violent in the UK, but he had to abase himself over it.
There was trouble about his preference for a white (pacifist) poppy rather the red, about his attitude to the EU, Nato, Vladimir Putin, class warfare, trade union power, the IRA, Hamas, Venezuela and 101 issues on which he's been peacefully and credulously far-left for decades. For poor Jezza is no longer surrounded by the like-minded: he's in a political and media piranha pool.
As with all UK politicians, his private life is now fair game for the tabloids. In addition to us all knowing why his first two wives divorced him, we've been treated to an account of his affair in the 1980s with Diane Abbott. You could argue that it's their business, but unfortunately since he's given her a Shadow Cabinet job, the tabloids claim public interest. So now we know that he's probably the mysterious man with whom Abbot once claimed to have romped naked in a field and that they went on holiday to East Germany on a motor bike. Corbyn tends to loathe the countries people are desperate to get into (e.g the USA and rest of the West) and love those they're desperate to get out of (e.g. Cuba and the old Soviet Union).
What he's been doing all week is caving in to whichever of his colleagues first gets him in an arm-lock. The big three are his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, who wants to overthrow capitalism, his elected deputy, Tom Watson, who is on Labour's right (two bruisers who will fight each other to the death for control of the party), and Tony Benn's son Hilary, Shadow Foreign Secretary, a centrist and a dogged survivor.
In the last week, Corbyn's been retreating and U-turning all over the place. Henceforward, he's promised to wear a red poppy, sing the national anthem, campaign for staying in the EU and has dithered about Nato. He's produced a majority of women in the Shadow Cabinet by creating meaningless new posts but caused more headlines by putting an anti-hunting, anti-badger-culling vegan in charge of agriculture. Last Wednesday, having asked party members for suggestions, he had a modest success at Prime Minister's Questions by reading out some of their emails, but he knows that he didn't lay a glove on David Cameron because he didn't know how to follow up.
The biggest issue in the last election was immigration. Corbyn's instincts are to let everyone in. Let's see how that works for him next week.