The Spectator's Notes

Corbyn’s handling of Brexit has been magnificently opportunistic

2 March 2019

9:00 AM

2 March 2019

9:00 AM

Jeremy Corbyn never ceases to attack Mrs May for trying to run down the clock. She has certainly done that, but she is also quite capable of running up the clock. This she is now doing with her threat of an extension of Article 50. She is like the mouse in the nursery rhyme, with its order reversed. As has been true at least since her disastrous general election of 2017, she will do absolutely anything to avoid a clean break with the EU and keep us in some approximation to the Customs Union. Hickory, dickory, dock: that’s the policy.

One could smell a rat — or rather, that mouse — in the fact that so many ministers have recently been allowed publicly to break with government policy and condemn ‘no deal’ flat-out, and even threaten resignation. Three ministers co-wrote an article in Tuesday’s Daily Mail (over the undead body of Paul Dacre) in this sense. They would never have dared to do so unless they had been sure that they would go unpunished by the government. If you follow the sequence of how a variety of ministers emerged on this subject, you will see orchestration. Mrs May’s spin doctor, Robbie Gibb, ex-BBC, briefs programmes like Newsnight all the time: the official line was to say how ‘troubling’ the behaviour of the ministers was. But you do not get three ministers to co-author an attack on stated government policy without government acquiescence. Gibb’s subliminal message was not ‘So they’ve got to come in line or go’ but ‘So we’ve got to give in to them’.

I have praised in print before Mr Corbyn’s magnificently opportunistic handling of the Brexit issue. His aim is to ensure that Brexit happens, but that it is very badly done, and can therefore be attacked as a ‘Tory Brexit’. Who can say he’s failing? His apparent conversion to a second referendum looks to me like a variation on the old theme. Highly qualified support for a ‘People’s Vote’ calms down some possible defectors to the Independent Group without changing the reality much. The unreality of the thing is reflected in Emily Thornberry’s idea that ‘Remain’ could be on the ballot paper. It implies, obviously, that we shall not have left the EU when Mr Corbyn calls the referendum. Not easy to see how this is possible, though Mrs May is undoubtedly having a good go.

A re-run trial in Australia has convicted Cardinal George Pell of child sexual abuse. He has appealed. The decision rested solely on the evidence of one complainant. In 1996/97, Pell is supposed to have committed acts against the then 13-year-old complainant in the sacristry of Melbourne cathedral, with the door open and people passing by. Expert witnesses explained in court that Cardinal Pell, fully robed after the Mass, simply could not have performed the alleged acts because, as one report put it, it is ‘impossible to produce an erect penis through a seamless alb’. I wouldn’t know. But I do wonder how safe Pell’s conviction will prove in a case so strangely conducted and so astonishingly politicised.

How to classify the story that there are a thousand fewer UK-born undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge than there were ten years ago? For those (seemingly all three main political parties) who love subjecting education to social control, is this good news? Is it a roaring success for ‘diversity’ (in the same period, Oxford numbers of overseas undergraduates rose by 51 per cent and Cambridge numbers by 65 per cent)? Or is it an example of social regression, since the main feature of most overseas undergraduates is that they pay much higher fees, and therefore are of much greater interest to the university authorities than our own fee-capped students? The whole tale is full of ironies. Nearly 40 years ago, Mrs Thatcher, then newly prime minister, provoked outrage by abolishing the government subsidy for overseas students. It was alleged that this would cut us off from the wider world. The exact opposite happened. When she abolished the subsidy, she also abolished the quota which had until then controlled the number of overseas students. Since the students were now paying real money, the universities threw themselves open to the wider world as never before. Obviously these students are of every sort of ethnic background. Equally obviously, they are predominantly rich. Their growth does tend to squeeze out indigenous students who must be, on average, poorer. The truth is that no policy ever devised has seriously challenged the dominance of hereditary elites at Oxford and Cambridge, except for one. This was a thing called the grammar school, but you don’t hear about it much these days.

Every year our local hunt has a ball to raise funds and have fun, and normally it achieves both aims. This year, as usual, the hunt booked a hotel for the event, but the establishment was bombarded by organised, revolting, online hate, warning off potential customers. Some of it came from people who probably won’t have much real connection with the place, since they live as far away as Canada. The online antis’ group also threatened a demo if the ball went ahead. The management, which had never experienced one of these social media assaults before, was frightened into cancelling the hunt’s booking. The hunt rebooked at another hotel, and here the same thing happened, even though all the tickets had been sold and there were only three days left. The bands, also intimidated, also cancelled. Hunts are nothing if not resourceful, however, and a pop-up ball took place on time at a secret location — the rural classes’ equivalent of a rave. It had a wonderful atmosphere of comradeship, and raised large sums. The horrible thing, though, is that commercial establishments can be attacked, seemingly with impunity, and their business can suffer, for taking bookings from peaceful legal organisations such as a hunt. As with so many web issues, the thugs in masks — real at hunt meets, virtual online — have more power than the forces of law.

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