As so often, Theresa May is in trouble. The prime minister is barely in control of her cabinet, let alone her mps or her party. Unless her attorney-general, Geoffrey Cox, comes back from Brussels with a magical release from the Irish backstop, she is set to lose a second vote on her Brexit deal next week and be forced to seek an extension of the March 29th deadline. The going should be good for the Labour Party. Yet in many ways Jeremy Corbyn, its leader, has even more problems than Mrs May.
The biggest is internal division in his party. It is worth recalling that four-fifths of his own mps expressed no confidence in Mr Corbyn’s leadership as long ago as June 2016. More recently eight of them have defected to form what they call the Independent Group (tig). Another mp has walked out since. Although the new group has also lured three Tory mps, and more defections are promised, its support seems to come mainly from erstwhile Labour voters. With polls showing tig,which is moving towards becoming a fully fledged party, scoring in the mid-teens, the Tory lead over Labour has widened into double figures.
And that is just one of Labour’s splits. Tom Watson, the deputy leader, is setting up the Future Britain Group, a social-democratic club of 50-odd Labour mps that amounts to a party within the party. Mr Watson, who like Mr Corbyn was directly elected by members, has no intention of leaving Labour. He may indeed be positioning himself for a future leadership race. Whatever happens, his group is likely to prove a thorn in Mr Corbyn’s side—just as the right-wing European Research Group within the Tory party is for Mrs May.
It is not just dislike of Mr Corbyn and his far-left worldview that lies behind these divisions. His personal rating is as abysmally low with voters as with his own mps. He is the least popular Labour leader since Michael Foot in 1982. Despite Mrs May’s shortcomings, a large majority considers her the more competent leader and plausible prime minister of the two.
Mr Corbyn is also suffering from continuing rows over anti-Semitism. When Luciana Berger joined the breakaway tig, she declared that Labour was institutionally anti-Semitic. On March 7th the official equality watchdog said that Labour may have unlawfully discriminated against Jews, and that it was considering using its statutory enforcement powers against the party. The ugly saga has badly tarnished the image of Mr Corbyn as a peace-loving anti-racism campaigner.
It has also highlighted the big difference between today and past decades when moderates battled to stop Labour drifting leftward. When the likes of Hugh Gaitskell and Neil Kinnock fought off far-left influence in the 1960s and 80s, they did so as party leader, supported by their shadow cabinet. Now it is the leadership itself that is in the hands of the far left. Those anxious to wrench the party back to the centre face having to do so from outside the tent, not inside it. And as Mr Watson and others are finding, that is a far harder task.
As if to stir things up, into all this has fallen Labour’s dilemma over Brexit. Mr Corbyn is a long-standing Eurosceptic who was against Britain joining what he considers a capitalist club. His immediate circle is mostly pro-Brexit, not least because of fears that the eu’s state-aid rules might stand in the way of efforts to build socialism in Britain. Yet the party’s mps and members are strongly pro-eu and see Brexit as central to a Tory policy that aims also at cutting social welfare, deregulating and reducing workers’ rights.
Mr Corbyn’s response has been one of studied ambiguity. While accepting the result of the 2016 referendum, he has opposed what he calls a Tory Brexit. He has sought to retain support from metropolitan Remainers as well as small-town Leavers. Yet as the Brexit deadline has drawn near, this attempt to please both sides has run out of road. Facing the prospect of more resignations by Remainer mps, Mr Corbyn has given conditional backing to what he calls a “public vote” on the government’s Brexit deal.
For the time being, there is little chance of a parliamentary majority for another referendum. That is partly because some Labour mps from Leave-voting constituencies are against the idea. They argue that the party would lose support if it were seen, like the Liberal Democrats, as overtly anti-Brexit. The promise of a second referendum might play well in London or in places with lots of students, they acknowledge, but it would go down badly in northern and midland seats that Labour must win if it is to secure a majority.
Most analysts disagree. Polls suggest that a majority of Labour voters, even in areas that supported Leave, backed Remain. And Labour Leave supporters seem to be softening their views, or even switching sides, more than Tory Leavers are. Peter Kellner, a former chairman of YouGov, points to polls showing that 70% of Labour voters now think the Brexit decision was a mistake. He concludes that the risk of losing votes to other parties or to abstention is greater if Labour is seen facilitating a Tory Brexit than if it calls for a second referendum. Rob Ford of the University of Manchester says this is true even in northern constituencies that backed Leave in 2016.
Labour’s woes and its poor showing in polls are encouraging some Tory mps to talk of another early election. They think back to the 1980s, when a divided, far-left Labour Party handed the Conservatives three successive election victories. Yet this time the Tories have been in power for nine hard years, voters are sick of austerity, Brexit is a mess and Mrs May is a proven flop on the campaign trail. After calling the 2017 election she frittered away a 20-point lead and cost the Tories their majority. As she struggles on against a damaged Mr Corbyn, it increasingly looks as if the most likely winner of the next election will be whichever party changes its leader first.