Over Brexit and antisemitism, Labour and Tory MPs are confronted with character-defining moral questions
In her swansong appearances at the dispatch box, Theresa May is endeavouring to get in touch with her funny side. She recently tried mocking Jeremy Corbyn by quoting Groucho Marx. “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.”
I expect most of the public take the Groucho view of politicians. In my experience, though, it is not true to say that their principles are endlessly mutable. Rather, what most politicians have is a hierarchy of convictions of varying degrees of flexibility.
At the bottom of this hierarchy are the disposable convictions, things that politicians hold true only until they become inconvenient. Then they will be discarded in the pursuit of electoral gain, suppressed in service of party unity or subjugated to career ambition. Boris Johnson is the quintessential contemporary example of a man with many strong convictions, all weakly held.
Then there are the higher principles. The things that a politician really does hold dear and will be prepared to self-sacrifice for. In defence of these convictions, they may rebel against the party whip, quit a frontbench job and jeopardise their prospects by infuriating the leader. One dramatic example of that was Robin Cook quitting Tony Blair’s cabinet over the Iraq war. Another was Michael Heseltine resigningfrom Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet over the Westland affair. They left government on a point of principle, but they remained within their respective parties.
At the apex of the hierarchy is the first-order principle, a belief so important to a politician that he or she will even quit their party to uphold their convictions. Opposing racism is – or certainly ought to be – a first-order principle for any member of the Labour party. If the Labour party is about anything, it surely has to be about opposing racism in all its manifestations. And if it can’t be relied on to do that, then it is no longer the Labour party. Three longstanding Labour peers have just quit because they do not believe that Labour can be counted any more as a non-racist party. Lords Darzi, Triesman and Turnberg had thought that it was worth staying within the party to fight antisemitism, but all have now been compelled to the conclusion that the struggle is so hopeless that it is morally indefensible to remain as members. David Triesman, a former party general secretary, says that Labour has become “very plainly institutionally antisemitic” and cannot be cleansed of this poison for so long as Jeremy Corbyn remains leader.
Lord Triesman is not alone in that view, further evidence for which was furnished by the Panorama investigation featuring eight whistleblowers, so distressed by what they had seen that some were driven into depression and one into contemplation of suicide. Their testimony was that they were fatally undermined in their attempts to tackle antisemitism by members of the leader’s entourage, who sought to downplay cases of anti-Jewish racism and dilute sanctions against it. To my mind, the aggressively denialist response to Panorama by the leadership was as revealing as the programme itself. Rather than regret what had come to light, apologise deeply and pledge urgent remedial action, Mr Corbyn’s spinners, spokespeople and sock puppets denounced the BBC while trying to trash the former Labour staffers who were the programme’s principal witnesses. As for the shadow cabinet, the kindest description of most of them is cowardly. The bulk of Labour’s senior team has reacted to the antisemitism scandal with dumb silence, as if gagged with non-disclosure agreements. They have not been available to defend the leader and his inner circle; nor have they raised their voices to demand action before Labour’s reputation, and by association their own, is irredeemably stained.
An exception has been Tom Watson, the deputy leader, who has said that the “harrowing testimony” in the programme is further evidence that “there is a sickness in our party”. He is making a particular issue of the secretive manner in which Mr Corbyn’s team are handling the investigation into anti-Jewish racism within Labour by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Mr Watson rightly says that it is outrageous that the national executive committee, the party’s governing body, is not being given sight of Labour’s submission to the EHRC. We can grasp why Mr Corbyn and his inner circle are being furtive about its contents. If it contains admissions that the party has developed a grave problem with antisemitism on his watch, that will be damaging. If the submission is an evasive and obfuscatory piece of work, maintaining that there is really nothing much to be troubled about, that will be even more damaging.
The vast majority of Labour MPs are disgusted that their party has become a home for antisemites, appalled by the leadership’s failure to deal with it properly, and frightened to say anything. This latest episode highlights the moral dilemma that is going to face them at the next general election, an event that could be upon them as early as this autumn. If they present themselves as Labour candidates at that election, they will have to go on doorsteps and before television cameras to recommend the installation of Mr Corbyn as prime minister and the promotion of his senior aides to some of the most powerful positions in the land. This will not be a bother for the minority of Labour MPs who think he will make an excellent prime minister, and who also maintain that the country will be safe, prosperous and tolerant in the hands of the Labour leader and his entourage. The moral dilemma is for the many more Labour MPs who believe he is absolutely unfit to be prime minister, for an array of reasons, and who further think that his inner cadre should not be allowed anywhere near the levers of power in Number 10.
At the election of 2017, Labour MPs parked their consciences and told themselves that it wasn’t a real dilemma because Mr Corbyn was never going to be prime minister. They told Corbyn-wary voters that they distrusted him just as much as anyone, but it was safe to vote Labour because there was no chance of there being a Labour government. The way things are at the moment, with Labour achieving the incredible feat of falling below the Tories in some polls, Labour MPs may again try to persuade themselves that this gets them off the moral hook. It’s OK to endorse Labour, antisemitism and all, because we haven’t a chance of winning. This sounds even more discreditable today than it did in 2017. And the way the polls are, with four parties each on around 20%, it can’t be guaranteed that the vote will not split in a way that could send Mr Corbyn to Downing Street despite everything.
A mirroring moral dilemma will face Tory MPs in the highly likely event of a Boris Johnson premiership. He has said he is prepared to crash Britain out of the EU on Halloween without a deal, a prospect that a significant cohort of Conservative MPs regard as grotesquely irresponsible. This autumn, these Tory MPs may have to choose between permitting a calamity Brexit or voting with the opposition to stop it, even if that means collapsing their own government. How far can their principles be stretched? In some cases, Tory consciences have a lot of elastic in their knickers. Matt Hancock and Amber Rudd, who have previously been eloquently vocal about what a catastrophe a no-deal Brexit would be, are now sounding like people reconciled to the idea, a conversion that may not be entirely unconnected to the expectation that Mr Johnson will be picking the next cabinet. Others have been more consistent. Ken Clarke, the former chancellor, told the Observer recently that he would rather vote on a confidence motion to terminate his own government than allow a crash-out Brexit. Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, says the same. If it comes to the crunch, they will put conscience and country first. Other Tories have yet to finish wrestling with their principles. Like their Labour counterparts, they are hoping that they will somehow be spared from having to make a choice, that they will not face a moment of truth in the moral crucible. But that test may well come, and very soon.
Both Labour and Conservative MPs are confronted with a career- and character-defining question, and it grows sharper by the week. When do they say to themselves that enough is enough? Where is the point when it becomes indefensible to stay within parties that are so abhorrent to their first-order principles? They will have to talk to their consciences, assuming that they can remember where they left them.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer