Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster – but is Corbyn the man to stop it?

Amid predictions of food and medicine shortages in a worst-case scenario, Britain could soon be broken

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. REUTERS
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. REUTERS

Britain’s leader of the opposition is Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. That’s the title, but is he really a leader? And how strong is his opposition? On Brexit – the most important battle in British politics since the Second World War – Mr Corbyn’s opposition has disturbed the Conservative British government as much as fleabites on the hide of an elephant. The British press is generally hostile to Mr Corbyn. The prime minister Boris Johnson attacks him as a socialist bogeyman who would turn Britain into Venezuela, a banana republic without the bananas.

This rhetoric is ridiculous but suffice to say, Mr Corbyn has not been an effective Labour leader. Under him the party faces a wipeout in Scotland, a former stronghold, and across the UK it is achieving historic lows in opinion polls. Besides, there is plenty to oppose. The Conservatives have botched Brexit and talk of a no-deal departure from the European Union leaves them divided among themselves. Even so, comedians joke that if Mr Corbyn visited Arsenal’s football ground near where he lives, he still wouldn’t understand what an open goal looked like.

Now Mr Corbyn wants other parties to unite behind him to stop a catastrophic no-deal Brexit. Let me declare an interest. I was so appalled by the lack of government information on what Brexit would really look like that last month, I published a book on the subject. The first print run sold out within days. No deal, I wrote, inevitably means higher prices and shortages of food with at least a 5 per cent to 10 per cent increase in food prices, plus an emergency airlift for pharmaceuticals.

Newspapers have now obtained documents the British government kept hidden on their planning for catastrophe. These documents on “Operation Yellowhammer” bear out everything private sources told me for my book – and worse. Disruption at key channel ports, shortages of petrol, street disturbances in Northern Ireland, plus severe delays on medicines and food mean a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster. The question is whether it can be stopped and whether Mr Corbyn is the man to do it.

To find out, I had a chat with an alternative leader of the opposition. His name is Ian Blackford and his real title is leader of the Scottish National Party at Westminster. Filling the vacuum of leadership from Labour, Mr Blackford and his SNP colleagues have been forensically exposing the inconsistencies and deceit in the position of Mr Johnson’s government.

The SNP is the third-biggest party at Westminster and it has one central aim: independence for Scotland. Brexit has helped their cause. In 2016 Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain in the European Union while England and Wales voted to leave. Since then, Mr Blackford and his Scottish constituents feel they have been ignored. Theresa May and Mr Johnson have wittered endlessly about “the will of the people” when they were really talking about the will of the English and Welsh people, alienating many Scots.

A no-deal Brexit would be a disaster. The question is whether it can be stopped, and whether Mr Corbyn is the man to do it.

Last week Mr Blackford told me his party is open to working with any other party to stop a no-deal Brexit and bring down Mr Johnson’s government. This would require Labour, the SNP, Welsh nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and some Conservatives to agree to a vote of no confidence in Mr Johnson. That could happen, but Mr Corbyn himself wants to lead a temporary government of national unity. And that may be impossible. Mr Corbyn and his advisers are not trusted, even by many of his own Labour MPs. And even some of Mr Corbyn’s supporters have told me they are “not hung up” on the idea that he becomes prime minister. Their focus is to stop a no-deal Brexit.

Other less controversial names of potential prime ministers have been suggested but while talks continue, Mr Johnson’s supporters have raised the stakes and threatened to sideline parliament altogether. This undemocratic idea would provoke the kind of political and constitutional ferment last seen in Britain in the 17th century when the monarchy was briefly overthrown, and yet some of Mr Johnson’s supporters appear to be considering such a dangerous step.

The reckless talk and incompetence of the Johnson government could mean a general election and perhaps another referendum might not be far away. We don’t yet know. But what struck me talking to Mr Blackford and other members of the SNP is that unlike Labour or the Conservatives, their leadership has been consistent. They want Brexit stopped. They are convinced a no-deal Brexit will be catastrophic. They want independence for Scotland. They think another independence referendum will come soon, whether Brexit happens or not.

The UK as it is now constituted could therefore cease to exist within the next five years. We face a long period of turmoil, whatever happens now, and yet I was especially encouraged when I asked Mr Blackford what lessons he had learned from the Brexit debacle. Mr Blackford responded vigorously. When Scottish independence happens – when, he said – the SNP will reach out to those who voted against the idea. Scotland will not make the mistake of demonising those who do not agree with “the will of the people” and will instead recognise that opponents are “people” too.

Mr Blackford’s clarity was in stark contrast to the often vague language of Mr Corbyn and the narrow and sometimes nasty English nationalism of Mr Johnson’s Conservative party. Mr Johnson is supposed to be prime minister of the UK. He is supposed to be leader of the Conservative and Unionist party, holding dear the union of Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. And yet a no-deal Brexit could bring with it an end to all of it. It will make us poorer. It has already has done so as the pound has fallen substantially. It will divide us further. The contemplation of food and medicine shortages might in the end destroy the union, Mr Johnson’s government and he could yet go down in history as the man who broke Britain.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Updated: August 19, 2019 04:54 PM

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