Jeremy Corbyn’s heart wasn’t in it. I’m sure he would love to fight another general election campaign, but he was not very good at pretending he thought it was likely.
At prime minister’s questions, before the debate on the no-confidence motion, he asked: “With poverty rising, can the prime minister tell us when we can expect it to fall?” As he said it, he seemed to realise this implied she would be in charge for a while, so he added: “… for the time that she remains in office?”
Given that he was about to table a motion in effect demanding a general election in seven weeks, he was calling for a remarkably speedy anti-poverty programme.
So the result of the vote came as no surprise to him. He united the Conservative Party a day after its deep division had been exposed, and he gave John Woodcock the chance to remind everyone that most Labour MPs had expressed no confidence in his leadership.
But Corbyn had to go through with the motion, because he would have looked feeble, rather than just insincere, if he had simply waved aside the biggest ever defeat of a government on a central question of its policy.
Curiously, his response to his defeat is roughly the same as Theresa May’s response to her defeat the previous evening. They both seem intent on ploughing ahead exactly as before. The prime minister came up with nothing new except for a limp offer to hold meetings with “senior parliamentarians from across the house”. The Labour leader looks set to hold out against pressure from his own party to move on, having failed to secure a general election, to supporting a new referendum.
Many Labour supporters of a new referendum have failed to read their party’s policy closely enough. They thought that, if the party couldn’t force a general election, it would support a new referendum. But that is not the policy agreed at the last party conference. It says: “If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.”
Corbyn has stuck closely to this formula, and his spokesperson has told journalists that he will continue to do so now that the vote for a general election has been defeated. The policy says that “all options” must remain on the table. Of course, this means “all options apart from a no-deal Brexit”, as Corbyn made clear in his response to May’s invitation to come round and talk some time. He said he would if she’d rule out a no-deal Brexit. But we can expect Corbyn to focus most of his effort in the future on options that do not include a referendum.
He will be very interested in a permanent customs union, and possibly even in Norway-plus, a plan that would keep the UK in the single market as well, accepting free movement of people. But a new referendum will remain just an option, not the policy, and it will continue to be hard to pin down Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, on whether, if there were to be another referendum, Remain should be one of the choices on the ballot paper.
Just as no-dealer Tory MPs (and party members) hoped May would change her mind about Brexit, Remainer Labour MPs (and party members) hoped Corbyn would swing the party’s official policy behind taking Brexit back to the people.
Both groups are going to be disappointed.