It’s objectively clear that there is a genuine possibility of a Corbyn government within months, possibly even weeks. That might be after an election, or it might be simply that the Conservatives lose the will to govern: there is a limit to how long governments can function with every vote at risk of failure, and yielding to a minority Labour government which is also subject to hostile majorities at every turn may seem a lesser evil.
But there’s been very little discussion of how it would pan out. The 30-35% of the population who really like him and/or are simply Labour expect it’ll be wonderful, interestingly without many specifics. The similar number who intensely dislike him or Labour think it’ll be Venezuelan chaos. The reality is as usual likely to be somewhere in between.
The obvious question is Brexit. Depending on the circumstances in which Labour took over, there might be some tweaking of the Withdrawal Agreement – notably getting rid of the red-line objection to permanent customs union and quite possibly signing up to something close to free trade.
And even if the WA has passed, there are years of negotiation to come on the political agreement. I’d expect the end result to be something that feels like membership while being formally outside. A big difference is that Labour will want the issue settled, whereas the Conservatives seem willing to discuss it indefinitely.
Like most new administrations, Corbyn could expect a honeymoon period, reinforced by the hysteria of some of the accusations. Merely by being polite to the Queen, refraining from doubling taxes and not declaring war on Israel, he can clear the “not as bad as they said” bar fairly easily.
Moreover, Labour has had its internecine warfare phase that the Tories are having now, and nobody enjoyed it. Few MPs, however privately sceptical, will want to be the first to move to overthrow the new government. Ostensibly, there will be a period of relatively stable government, and nearly everyone will find that a blessed relief.
Problems will arise with the first Budget, which on any reasonable reading will need to have Lib Dem and SNP consent, not to mention quietly dissident Labour MPs. Looking ahead to that is making McDonnell, who is the key policy strategist, so markedly pragmatic. He will benefit from the fact that expectations are both fairly low and quite inchoate.
Nobody has wet dreams about immediate water nationalisation, nor is any other single difficult policy a must-have-now priority with most Labour voters. Higher taxes for the very rich, easing of austerity at the bottom and the shareholding scheme (which has significant benefits for public finances) will be enough the first time round. Add the first steps to state ownership of water and some pointed distancing from the excesses of Mr Trump, and most supporters will feel it’s a good start.
What then? Another election, I’m afraid. I can’t see a loose coalition carrying on indefinitely, and going for a majority in the honeymoon period, while the Tories are still trying to decide what they’re for, makes sense. If Labour gets it, though, the time for excuses will be over, and supporter expectations of nirvana will start to collide with reality.
I don’t expect it to be easy, but nor is it likely to be chaotic. A seriously left-wing government which is also cautious is unusual, and it’s hard to predict how much rope supporters will give it. But the number of people of any persuasion who expect the current Government to survive indefinitely is small.
So we’re probably going to find out.
Nick Palmer was Labour MP for Broxtowe, 1997-2010.