Richard North, 22/09/2019  

Having the Labour Party conference popping up to interrupt the Brexit crisis is rather like having to watch an advert for feminine hygiene products in the middle of an action sequence in a James Bond film. The best one can do is make a cup of tea while waiting for the action to resume.

That said, it looks as if the Labour psychodrama (alongside the more familiar Tory psychodrama) is going to be with us for a little while, and increasingly difficult to ignore as Jeremy Corbyn struggles to contain an open revolt in his party.

The proximate cause of this disturbance is the Labour leader's refusal to back a policy of remaining in the EU, which has some of his most senior shadow ministers, MPs and party activists seething with an anger which threatens to spill over and wreck the Labour conference.

Says the Observer, what was supposed to be a conference to showcase a party united behind new policies on education and health before a likely general election has instead opened amid bitterness and acrimony.

The opener was the attempt to depose deputy Labour leader Tom Watson and now we have the march of the nonentities, Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer and Clive Lewis, the shadow foreign secretary, Brexit secretary and Treasury minister, publicly defying Corbyn by backing "remain".

Thornberry even took it upon herself to lead a march through the streets of Brighton in favour of a people's vote, only hours after Corbyn had tabled a motion to the NEC in favour of delaying a decision on whether to back remain or leave. Her view, stridently expressed, was: "We have got to campaign to remain. We have got to stop messing around".

Corbyn, of course, is having to balance the leave tendencies of his northern, working class constituencies with his metropolitan "champagne socialists", who strongly support EU membership. In its own way, Labour is just as divided as the Tories, with leading activists ready to break party discipline in an attempt to brand Labour as a remain party.

Those that are interested can look forward to a conference dominated by a series of flashpoint moments. Today, we have the thrilling prospect of discussions on what Brexit motion goes forward for debate and a vote on the conference floor on Monday. Then on Tuesday Watson is planning to make his own call for unity in a seven-minute deputy leader’s speech, before Corbyn’s keynote address on Wednesday.

The mood among delegates and members, we are told, will not be helped by the latest Opinium/Observer poll which shows that Labour (on 22 percent) has now fallen 15 points behind the Tories (on 37 percent) despite the turbulent start to Johnson's premiership. Hard line pro-remain Lib-Dems are on 17 percent and the Brexit party captures 12 percent of the vote.

What can't be stated with any certainty is the effect a "remain" position might have on Labour's electoral position. The party would most certainly lose some of its support in the staunchly "leave" constituencies, perhaps opening the way for Farage's party to make some mischief.

But, with as many remain voters (33 percent) planning to vote for the Lib-Dems as for Labour, an unequivocal remain position might help claw back votes from the Lib-Dems. Oddly enough, though, this might be of greater benefit to the Tories. There are some twenty Tory/Lib-Dem marginals, and a clearer Labour remain position could take some pressure off the Tories.

Nevertheless, Labour has its own problems. In the Opinium/Observer poll, 58 percent of respondents think the Tories have a clear policy on Brexit, against just 31 percent who think Labour's approach is clear. The surprise is that so many think Labour has a clear position.

Even then, Corbyn's current position is no clearer and he is unlikely to gain him any brownie points from any quarter. He has tabled to his NEC a statement on his latest stance on the referendum. He now wants to offer the option of a "credible" Brexit deal or remain to voters, but the decision on how the party would campaign would be left until after a general election.

Perhaps the only thing to do is draw a veil over this private grief and let the Labour party get on with it. Meanwhile, we have the entertaining prospect of Johnson going to the United Nations in New York, where he is to talk with Donald Tusk, as well as Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. He is also scheduled to meet Leo Varadkar.

No doubt, the hype will be flowing liberally, and it is only a matter of time before we get another round of predictions about a deal in the offing, even if the main event will be "technical talks" with Barnier in Brussels.

Then, some time next week, we will have that other great distraction, the Supreme Court decision, which will nicely distract attention from the fact that the Brexit talks are actually going nowhere. But then, there is plenty to keep the hacks entertained, and that is all that really matters (not).

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