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This Tory chaos won’t last. Labour must take its chance

The Conservatives will unite to resume their attack on the poor. If Corbyn has a plan, let’s hear it now

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If British Home Secretary Theresa May is the answer, what is the question? Well, she would be a marginally less alarming prime minister for Britain than the other four contenders. Her “safe pair of hands” wins MPs’ votes — though the aged Tory rank and file may think otherwise: Those who once chose Iain Duncan Smith could do anything.

The Conservative Party always knows what it’s for — preserving wealth and power by appealing to others who aspire to it. That holds good except when the party’s common sense is devoured by the brain weevil of Europhobia. Once an infestation afflicting a few obsessives, now the infection has passed to 52 per cent of Britain too, fanned by fears and fantasies from Murdoch and the Daily Mail.

Enjoy their warfare — Justice Secretary Michael Gove called a “psychopath”, others dubbed “clueless” or “hypocrites” — but the ruthless Tory machine will soon have a leader and press on. Leadership elections lift the stone on what a party really wants when talking to itself. Andrea Leadsom, the banker and fracker equivocating on her tax, lays claim to Margaret Thatcher. She pledges to make Britain “the greatest country on Earth” — a vaunting bit of Trumpery. She’s got the more extreme Tory backers on board, and as the upstart she may get the grass roots.

Gove had once kept a bust of Lenin to show his belief in “creative destruction”: We’ve just seen the consequences of that — destroy first, worry later about broken pieces. An elaborate surface-courtesy contains a burning radicalism — and that’s his pitch, shake it all up. No one forgets his “people in this country have had enough of experts”, or his long track record in tossing aside evidence for conviction. Russian President Vladimir Putin will fear him, he claims: “I’m not a soft touch”.

Liam Fox has an alarming “moral vision for transforming the country”, with “a return to traditional values, global trade and strong defence” — which he will pay for by cutting “welfare”, as “we are spending too much”. Stephen Crabb will “tackle the sick note culture”, to “help people”. All of them speak fluent one-nation, life chances, opportunity, the left-behind — even decrying the excesses of the undeserving rich. That’s pure early-days David Cameron — sympathy, but no solutions.

May sails by like a ship of state, but they suspect she’ll rat on Brexit. All candidates over-compensate for their negatives, so she poses as harshest on the three million European Union (EU) nationals living in the United Kingdom, to use as hostages in EU negotiations. The four Brexiters try to sound moderate by promising not to repatriate them. May’s Home Office record includes those shameful “Go home” vans sent to frighten ethnic minorities. But she calls herself a feminist, beefed up police treatment of child abuse and rape, launched the Hillsborough inquiry, and backed off withdrawing from the European convention on human rights. Least worst, probably.

In all this turmoil, the familiar effects of a Tory government continue. Latest poverty figures show no improvement: Thirteen million officially poor and an 8 per cent increase in child poverty by 2020, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Real wages are still 7 per cent below pre-crash levels — the Resolution Foundation says older people are getting bigger wage increases than the young, the gap widening. House building is falling steeply, with worse expected as construction shares plummet.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s Brexit response is not to borrow to build — at negative rates, that’s profitable — but cutting corporation tax in a tax shelter race to the bottom. The National Health Service (NHS) plunges daily deeper into crisis, social care is even worse. The National Union of Teachers is striking over deeper school cuts. A National Audit Office report on nonexistent careers advice is just another shrinkage in the social fabric. Osborne abandoning a deficit target already missed heralds no easing of austerity. Whoever moves into Downing Street will treat any coming recession with that traditional Tory tonic, harder cuts: The post-Thatcher generation can imagine no other policy.

Labour stands for bettering the public realm, for those without power and money. That’s only done one way — by winning power in parliament with most MPs. That’s never been more urgent, yet Labour has rarely looked more unelectable. Institute of Commercial Management now finds the Tories at 37 per cent, Labour at 30 per cent, exactly where things stood in the miserable 2015 election.

John McDonnell tours TV studios in a state of denial, claiming Jeremy Corbyn does well in elections. In May’s locals Labour’s performance was the worst by an opposition in 30 years, according to the YouGov founder Peter Kellner. Sadiq Khan did brilliantly in London for the mayoral election, but that was him. Greater London Assembly results scored the same as at the 2015 general election, the Tooting by-election no better than those pre-2015 — and look where that led. No opposition has ever won without reaching at least a 20 per cent lead in the polls: Ed Miliband once got half that — and look where Corbyn is now, when the opposition should be riding high.

Deborah Mattinson, of Britain Thinks, has focus groups of swing voters, Leavers in Knowsley and Remainers in Brighton: “He has the worst ratings of any opposition leader ever. They don’t hate him, it’s worse than that, invisible, not on their radar, no idea what referendum side he was on.”

As John Curtice writes, most Labour voters were always Remainers: Cameron is to blame for letting Tory voters slide away to Leave during the campaign. But this should be Labour’s mighty chance. Tory Europhobes have finally crashed the country, by lying. Last Saturday, at the March for Europe, 50,000 people of all parties, who’d never marched before, called out their friendship with Europe, with no Socialist Workers party placards, but witty home-made symbols of love for Europe.

So where were Corbyn and McDonnell? Why not sharing that platform to speak up for the 16 million Remainers? The 48 per cent needed to hear them say: “They lied, they had no Brexit plan, they promised the NHS a phantom £350 million (Dh1.66 billion) a week, they won’t take back control and now we all risk recession for nothing.” That’s not rejecting the referendum result, but arguing that the winners lied. Why not call a halt before pulling the pin of the Article 50 grenade. Call for talks first on free movement and for a general election, at which Labour should advocate talks to stay in or as close as possible. Any half-reasonable Labour leader would seize this hour of emergency, but Labour isn’t there. No wonder there’s a fast and frantic attempt to put a competent leader in place.

Most who voted for Corbyn aren’t hard-left cultish sectarians, any more than his opponents are “Blairite bitterites”. Many liked Corbyn’s appeal for “gentler, kinder politics” and an end to austerity. But they should take a hard look at his failing leadership. Listen to the policies of the Tory contenders, look at the plight of Britain. Labour needs a new strong uniting voice.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Polly Toynbee is a columnist for the Guardian. She was formerly BBC social affairs editor, columnist and associate editor of the Independent.

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