Angela Smith MP

Penistone & Stocksbridge

Daily Telegraph Comment

Jeremy Corbyn’s childish and irresponsible refusal to join Brexit talks with Theresa May, on the grounds that Chuka Ummuna was in the room, came as no surprise to me.

I served for over three years as a member of the Parliamentary Committee, which acts as a means of facilitating dialogue between the leadership of the Labour Party and its backbench MPs.  It was an incredibly exasperating experience, not least because Corbyn himself demonstrated a repeated inability to listen to alternative points of view.  I should never have been surprised by this; after all, we are talking about a politician whose career has been dominated by a complete lack of interest in engaging with views other than his own. 

It wasn’t just a stubborn refusal to engage with his colleagues constructively that enraged members of the Committee, however.  Over a period of time, it became apparent that Corbyn was going to find every excuse possible not to attend the meetings.  Things got so bad that colleagues started to track absences, raising the matter at the beginning of every meeting which started with the words, ‘Jeremy sends his apologies’.  We all knew, of course, why this was happening – Corbyn is incapable of moving beyond his hard-left comfort zone.  He hates challenge and despises those who espouse pragmatic, centre ground politics.  And so it was easier just not to turn up.

That’s exactly why I am not at all taken aback at what happened yesterday.  Chuka Umunna’s very presence at that very important meeting represented to Corbyn all the challenge, all the intellectual argument and all the opposition that he hates so much in British politics.  Far easier just to walk away.

Despite the fact, of course, that the topic under discussion represented the most important issue faced by our country in the post-war period.  The Brexit process has already damaged the civic and political fabric of our country, thanks to the very poor leadership of Theresa May.  She has managed to create discord where there was union and despair where there was hope, to quote St Francis of Assisi.  When she became Prime Minister, she had the space and the goodwill to build consensus across Parliament as to the best way forward, one which recognised the very close nature of the referendum result.  She had the opportunity to unite the country and its elected representatives but she chose not to, surrounding herself with Brexiteer red lines which have inflicted appalling damage to the relationship between Government and Parliament and tested to their limits our democratic structures.

Corbyn, however, has equally failed the test of leadership in this process.  I will never forget how he refused, at the Despatch Box, to engage in talks with the Prime Minister when her deal went down for the first time.  I will never forget how he has refused, all the way through the Brexit process, to take on the mantle of leadership by acknowledging the need to abandon political tribalism in order to secure a consensus on the way forward.  I will never forgive the fact that he has always put his politics first, seeking continually to find division and discord as a way of illustrating the lofty worthiness of his cause. 

No wonder, then, that he walked away on Wednesday evening.  Jeremy Corbyn is not interested in resolving all the thorny issues relating to Brexit; he thrives on discord and embraces the concept of chaos.  For him, all this is a pre-requisite to the change he really believes in.  And Chuka’s presence in the room was a painful reminder that there is a progressive alternative to his vision of revolutionary justice and revolutionary social change. 

But where does this leave Brexit, and our country?  The tragedy is that we have never needed constructive opposition to Her Majesty’s Government as much as we do now.  Great Labour leaders in the past have managed this – Clem Attlee was instrumental in ensuring that the country got the leadership it needed in the face of the Second World War.  Corbyn, however, is incapable of rising to the occasion.  He does not possess the statesmanship necessary to ensuring that he plays his part in getting the country out of the Brexit mess that it finds itself in.

Far easier to shout from the sidelines and to revert to type, addressing his own supporters rather than the country. 

That’s why Labour, a once great party, is increasingly at risk of irrelevance.   And it’s why I joined my colleagues in saying, enough is enough.  For the sake of the country, it’s time to build something different that promises a brighter future for our democracy.