Leader of the Opposition is the toughest job in British politics. If Jeremy didn’t know it before, he knows it now.

Leader of the Opposition is the toughest job in British politics. If Jeremy didn’t know it before, he knows it now.


From a LAB perspective: Donald Brind’s weekly column

The Bishop of Chichester George Bell was celebrated in a BBC Radio Great Lives programme a couple of years ago for a wartime speech in the House of Lords condemning the bombing of German civilians. Bell was no pacifist but he argued that “ to justify methods inhumane in themselves by arguments of expediency smacks of the Nazi philosophy that Might is Right.“ The speech was made in February 1944, months before Allied boots landed on the ground in Normandy. Bomber command were taking the fight to the Nazis.

On the Great Lives programme the advocate for Bell was Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens who described the bishop’s speech “one of the clearest, most coherent and measured statements ever made about the war”. It was no surprise, therefore, that Hitchens produced one of the stand out pieces of commentary in the wake of the Paris terror attacks. ” Really want to beat terror?,” he asked. “Then calm down and THINK – Could we please skip the empty bravado?” He said. “This is a time for grief above all else, and a time to refrain from sound bites and posturing . France is stricken, and we should weep with her.”

He questioned whether four decades of vast spending used to spy on and fight terrorists had made us any safer. “It is remarkably hard to defend yourself against an enemy whose language few of us speak, yet who speaks ours and can move freely in our world, and who is willing, even happy, to die at our hands – or his own – if he can kill us first.”

Hitchens also challenged the “dubious and dangerous use of pilotless drones to conduct summary executions of our enemies. Few can be sorry at the death of Mohammed Emwazi (the so-called ‘Jihadi John’), but what precedents are we setting? For the moment, our fanatical foes do not have drones of their own. One day, they will.” So here in a right wing paper that we Lefties love to hate was a tract which chimed with the attitudes and feelings of the party’s peace loving leader.

But being Leader of the Opposition is a far tougher job than being a bishop and or a newspaper columnist. It is arguably the “Toughest Job in Politics” – the title of a 2008 BBC programme by Julia Hartley-Brewer which examined the travails of one David Cameron.

It’s true too that times of crisis, if handled well, are likely to produce a political bonus for the government of the day. The Falkland factor certainly contributed to the cult of Thatcher. Whether the invasion of Iraq produced a “Baghdad Bounce” for Tony Blair, I can’t recall but it was certainly talked about. If it did happen the effect dissipated long ago.

Times of perceived danger face any leader of the Opposition with a challenge – to capture the public mood; to offer a mixture of reassurance along with a willingness to confront difficult questions. For Jeremy Corbyn the test was always going to be tougher still. Even if he had been pitch perfect he could expect the likes of Simon Danczuk, John Mann or Mike Gapes to spot some bum notes.

In the event his performance was far from perfect. His interview with Laura Kuenssberg , in which he spoke against police being able to shoot to kill, was, to put it kindly, inept. . From thereon, people were scrambling to put distance between themselves and their leader. Among them was the Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn who told the Today programme “I can’t speak for Jeremy”. The mood was captured by a wide angle shot of the Commons with Corbyn flanked by just a couple front benchers, one of them Diane Abbott.

Then along came Ken. A bad idea, Livingstone’s appointment to the party’s defence review, was badly handled. And the man himself doubled up on the disaster by insulting, then making an unconvincing apology to, front bencher Kevan Jones.

What makes it all so depressing for the majority of Labour MPs — who are moderate, loyal to the party and keen to make the best of a bad situation — is that they see around them hardworking shadow ministers taking the fight to the Tory Government. And winning arguments, notably, over the cut in tax credits and police numbers, on the crisis in the NHS underlined how the threatened strike by junior doctors and on the short-sighted policies on renewable energy.

A couple of other positives are the success for the Labour Movement for Europe in lining up Jeremy Corbyn, his whole Shadow Cabinet and 214 MPs behind the Remain campaign and another defeat on the government in the House of Lords – this time over votes for 16 and 17 year olds in the EU referendum.

But with a huge black cloud hanging over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party you need a powerful telescope to spot the silver linings.

Donald Brind

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