Alastair Campbell wrote an interesting article yesterday about what Theresa May should do now – it is very good, and you should check it out in full. In it, Campbell writes an imaginary speech for Theresa May, one in which she levels with the nation about how impossible Brexit is to achieve whilst maintaining a healthy economy, and to that end she now recommends the country not go through with it.
I’m not here today to tell you that Theresa May should or shouldn’t give that speech to the nation; more simply, I just want to try and objectively view what the consequences of her giving the “Campbell” speech, or something very much like it, would be.
How her own party would react is hard to predict. Whilst many hardcore Brexiteers would be instantly furious with her – obviously – the fact is, if the speech was well received by the country at large it would be hard for them to behead her then, having stuck by her when everything was going so wrong for her until that point. However, there is every chance that May admitting Brexit was a bad idea would go down like a lead balloon with the British public, and if that was the case I think she’d be removed from Number 10 pretty quickly by her MPs. Like I say, what the parliamentary Conservative Party would do in such a circumstance I think would have a lot to do with the mood of the country afterwards.
However, what such a speech would do to the Labour Party is much more predictable: they would be totally and utterly screwed. Seriously, imagine you’re an adviser in Corbyn’s office, and May delivers a speech saying that Brexit is, on reflection, a bad idea. What would you recommend Corbyn do in that instance? It would be an impossible situation for you. Labour have managed to walk a fine line on Brexit, one that has delivered some measure of electoral success to them. But they have only been able do so because the Tories have stuck to so rigid a line on the topic, all while the negotiations seemingly flounder badly. May saying that the country needs a rethink on Brexit would put Labour in a very, very bad position.
For a start, every hour that would go by without a clear and robust response to May’s speech from Corbyn would be jumped all over and endlessly evaluated in all sorts of negative ways by the press. Then when he did respond, quickly, he’d have two broad options. Corbyn could welcome May’s speech and commend her for “returning the country to a sane discussion” or something along those lines. Yet while this might shore up the Remainery youth vote he already has, he would take a massive risk with this response. He would have to say something before he knew what the country’s real response to the speech actually was, which would take at least four days to a week to have a real feel for. What if a very large chunk of Leave voters felt betrayed by May’s “Campbell speech” – and that many of those happened to be Labour or ex-Labour voters who would feel doubly betrayed by Corbyn for having sided with her on this one?
Having said that, Corbyn going the other way and denouncing her for it, saying that the people voted for Brexit and she must deliver on it, would be massively risky as well. In travelling down this route, Corbyn would be appealing to many people who would never vote for him anyhow given his other political beliefs, all while very possibly breaking the spell he has over pro-EU youths. It could be all over for him, in terms of winning the next election, within minutes.
In summary: Corbyn would have to respond very swiftly to such a speech by the Prime Minister – and either possible response could destroy him electorally, completely and utterly. And in fact, both of them could – just by giving the speech, May could very possibly pull the rug out from underneath Corbyn.
I realise this is all speculation, obviously – it is very hard to see Theresa May giving anything like the “Alastair Campbell” speech, turning her back on Brexit. But it is, nonetheless, interesting to speculate on how brutally it would expose Corbyn and the Labour Party. I realise the flip side of this is that it could blow up in May and Tories’ faces as well, meaning there is possibly, in the end, a net benefit for Labour. Yet there would be a few very uncomfortable days at Labour HQ following such a manoeuvre by May.