Premium

This pointless row over a 'caretaker' government just highlights Labour and Lib Dem weaknesses

Jeremy Corbyn
If the Remainers' plan is to stop a no deal with a government of national unity, then we are leaving on October 31 Credit:  OLI SCARFF/ AFP

News is like an ideal gas: it expands to fill the available space. This is why in August, when most MPs are either working on their tans or pressing the flesh in their constituencies, the political news tends to get increasingly silly and shrill in an effort to fill the available space.

The latest Brexit row, which if you are lucky enough to be on a desert island you may have missed, is about a formation of a government of national unity, whereby various big names from across the party divide, united only by a shared aversion to a no-deal Brexit, would form a temporary government to seek an extension of the Article 50 process and a fresh election.

The idea started life as a ruse by allies of Ed Davey, the defeated candidate in the Liberal Democrat leadership election, to subtly talk up their man’s credentials to be leader. Unlike Jo Swinson, who defeated him, Davey was a Secretary of State in the coalition government. The argument failed to move Liberal Democrat activists but has enjoyed a strange second life as a way to prevent Brexit.

To say that the plan has a couple of holes in it is a bit like saying that Chicago in the 1920s had some minor difficulties with organised crime. The biggest central problem is that you can’t have a unity government – or, as Jeremy Corbyn prefers to call it, a “caretaker” government – without the co-operation and support of the Labour Party and all of its 247 Labour MPs. But the Labour leader will never support a government other than one he leads – and there is no meaningful hope or prospect of a government lead by Jeremy Corbyn commanding the confidence of the House of Commons this side of an election.

Why? The two reasons are intimately linked. The impassable barrier to a Corbyn government is the group of ten MPs elected under a Labour banner in 2017 but who have since left the Labour Party due to their opposition to Corbyn, because they believe his economic and foreign policies would be a disaster to the United Kingdom and that he himself is an anti-Semite. Those votes mean that to form a caretaker government with Corbyn at its head you would need the support of 14 Conservative rebels – well in excess of any plausible figure to form a government.

But it would be a political disaster for Corbyn to publicly acknowledge the existence of those fears, let alone concede that they should be accorded sufficient weight for him to facilitate the election of another politician as Prime Minister. No political leader would ever do it.

So Swinson is right to say that by insisting that he leads a caretaker – or in her preferred phrase, an “emergency” government – he is in reality blocking off any hope of it ever happening, while doing just enough to be able to blame someone else if a no deal Brexit happens.

The problem for the Liberal Democrat leader is that for tactical and ideological reasons she can’t say that she would make Corbyn Prime Minister. Tactically, the path to Liberal Democrat seats runs through an alliance of Conservative voters who dislike Boris Johnson but fear Jeremy Corbyn, former Labour voters who dislike Corbyn and/or his Brexit stance, and loyal Labour voters voting tactically to get the Tories out in places Labour cannot win.

Ideologically, Swinson is well-attuned with the votes of two of the three groups: she, like disgruntled Tory opponents of Johnson and homeless Labour enemies of Corbyn, believes that both Corbyn and Johnson are unfit to be Prime Minister. But she can’t say so too loudly without losing the support of the final pillar of her support – Labour voters who like the idea of a Corbyn government but know that a vote for him is wasted in the seats that they hold. Like Corbyn, the government of national unity row is dangerous to Swinson because it takes her into territory where the party’s strategic vulnerabilities are left exposed and vulnerable.

That’s one of the reasons why the row over a government of national unity is pointless – but vitally important at the same time. It’s pointless because a unity government is dead in the water – but it is important because it exposes two vulnerabilities. The first is that it highlights Labour’s difficulty that a large number of people still have doubts about their candidate’s fitness for office, and also brings to light the Liberal Democrats’ own difficulties with balancing their need to appeal to Labour voters who dislike Corbyn and Labour voters who are fond of him.

But the second, and more important factor is that if Remainers’ main plan to stop no deal is a government of national unity, you can safely assume that we will leave the European Union on 31 October – with the only question being who gets the blame.