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Today Jeremy Corbyn changed out of his wellies and into a tartan scarf to visit the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. His visit got off to an inauspicious start, however, when he was heckled by the Reverend Richard Cameron, a Church of Scotland Minister, who asked him in unequivocal terms: “Do you think the man that’s going to be Prime Minister of this country should be a terrorist sympathiser?”. In the face of this inquisition, Corbyn made a silent retreat from the scene.
Tom Rayner of Sky news uploaded a video of the events this morning. Cameron – a controversial figure – also said that he was surprised Corbyn wasn’t wearing his “Islamic jihad scarf”. I don’t think they do those in the tourist tat shops of Edinburgh, but the comment has since gone viral on Twitter and on broadcast news.
This will undoubtedly be another one of those political events which are enjoyed or despised by those within Westminster’s media bubble, but not something which is likely to fly beyond it. What has the potential to cause far more political damage are allegations that Corbyn will concede a second independence referendum to the SNP as the price of his entry into Number Ten, if the circumstances after the December election make this necessary for him.
In an effort to respond to such speculation, Corbyn said to the press this morning that there would be “no referendum” under a Labour government, adding that his government’s “priority” would be to boost investment across Scotland. This, however, was met with a quick response by an infuriated SNP leadership. The SNP’s social justice spokesman Neil Grey responded by saying that the Labour leader is in “no position” to dictate terms to the SNP and “the people of Scotland”. The SNP added that “the once dominant Scottish Labour party” are “now at the point of extinction”.
Labour advisers later dialled back Mr Corbyn’s statement, and instead said that the party’s position could change depending upon the results of the 2021 Holyrood election. What curious political forces are at play here? Well the political rumour mill is filled with suggestions that, given that it is hard to see how Corbyn would reach Number 10 without the SNP’s support, he may have already been engaged in informal talks on the matter. There may even be a form of deal in the offing, even though both parties deny it.
We will have to see whether Corbyn’s Scottish play becomes an electoral triumph or tragedy, but one thing is for certain – if Jeremy Corbyn were to concede to another independence referendum for the SNP, then it would be a very unpopular among the English and Welsh voters that the Tories are looking to poach from Labour. If suspicions that Corbyn is getting into bed with the SNP north of the border gain enough traction among those patriotic voters, then it could spell a death knell for his party where he needs to win most.
Boris Johnson was quick to exploit the questions surrounding Labour’s ambiguous relationship with the SNP. In typically bombastic style, Johnson warned that a vote for Labour would really only mean “two more referendums, one on Scotland and one on the EU”. This was intended to be completed with a reference in the press release version, one wisely excised from the later speech which was delivered, to Corbyn’s “political self-obsession and onanism”. Ouch. This would be crude if it wasn’t expressed in such esoteric language.
In a key speech delivered during a visit to an electric taxi manufacturer near Coventry earlier today, Johnson also said that “If we can get a working majority” then he could “end the groundhoggery of Brexit.” In what is being billed as his first major speech of the election campaign, Johnson also drew attention to his pledge to tackle what he has been calling “the opportunity gap”, as well as making a commitment to create a “green revolution” by investing in infrastructure to tackle climate change. This includes investments of £18 billion, which Johnson wants to put into high-tech research and development, including groundbreaking work to create a Nuclear fusion centre.
Johnson’s line of attack is interesting. The real groundhoggery is not so much Labour’s Brexit policy, but the tried and tested tactic of associating a Labour government with the SNP, a so-called “coalition of chaos”. This was exactly the same tactic exploited by David Cameron in the 2015 election, where the Conservatives unveiled posters and videos on the campaign trail which showed Ed Miliband, then Labour leader, dancing to Alex Salmond’s tune.
It seems that at several turns, this election is looking more and more like its predecessors, despite it being built up as a great contest over the soul of the British constitution fought by a multi-party cast.
Indeed, the Conservatives have continued to receive unexpected boosts after Nigel Farage’s concessions on Monday. Pollsters now believe that Farage standing down in the 317 seats won by the Tories in 2017 might have a carry over effect into Labour marginals, where they believe there are signs that the Conservatives may get a swing from the Brexit party as a result.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have formally launched their campaign. Today Jo Swinson kicked off in combative style in a boxing gym in North London where she pledged to fight knife crime, in addition to investing more in job opportunities and forging a “Unite to Remain alliance”.
If this all sounds a bit reminiscent of David Cameron’s “hug a hoodie” pitch, then that’s because it probably is. In the New Statesman, Stephen Bush explained how the Liberal Democrats are backing their ability to win former Europhile and liberal Tories over to her party. Instead of tacking to the left to try and eat into Labour’s vote, they are attempting to take votes from the Conservatives at a greater rate than the Conservatives are taking votes from Labour.
Will this ploy work? The endorsement given to the Liberal Democrats by former Conservative cabinet minister, David Gauke, a consistently pro-Remain Tory, suggests that this could possibly work at the Westminster level. Whether this will translate into a solid voter coalition of former Cameroons and traditional Liberal Democrat voters is another question. Much depends upon the location – in seats such as Croydon Central, polling suggests that a Liberal Democrat resurgence is still taking votes from Labour rather than the Conservative party.
One thing is certain – across the campaign trail, today has certainly been filled with its fair share of groundhoggery from all of the main political parties.