(Bloomberg) — U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn tried to shut down questions about his Brexit position by saying he’d stay neutral in a second referendum on whether to leave the European Union.
Corbyn has previously refused to say what he’d do, something that has dogged him in the campaign for the Dec. 12 general election. His pledge came in a BBC question-and-answer show featuring the leaders of Britain’s four main political parties, in which all of them came under hostile questioning from a studio audience in Sheffield, northern England.
“My role as prime minister will be to adopt a neutral stance so I can credibly carry out the result,” the Labour leader said. “My role and the role of our government will be to ensure that that referendum will be held in a fair atmosphere, and we will abide by the result.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has focused his fire on Corbyn’s previous refusal to say which side he would take in a second referendum, and Labour’s decision to shift position on such a critical issue mid-way through the campaign suggests the attacks were hitting their mark.
The Labour leader argues the public should be given a final say on whether to back any new deal he agrees with the EU, or to remain in the bloc. The position reflects the way his party has found itself caught between its activists, who mostly oppose Brexit, and the large section of its voters who support it. The new position may not solve the problem.
Johnson, speaking last, said Labour’s stance “seems to have mutated tonight.” The premier said being “neutral or indifferent” would make it harder for Corbyn to negotiate the new agreement with the EU he says he wants.
The prime minister had his most difficult moments when he was asked about offensive language he’d used in his career as a journalist. He also appeared uncomfortable when he came under attack for his party’s record on welfare and public services, in particular the National Health Service.
He tried to distance himself from the Conservatives’ period in government since 2010 by arguing he’d been mayor of London for much of that time, and only became prime minister a few months ago.
“For most of that time I was running London,” he said.
Johnson was challenged repeatedly about the issue of trust and honesty — his first questioner asked how important it was for someone in his position to “always stay on the truth,” provoking laughter and applause from the audience. Later, he struggled to defend newspaper columns he wrote describing women in Muslim dress as looking like “letterboxes,” gay men as “bumboys,” and black people as “piccaninnies.”
“If you go through all my articles with a fine tooth comb, you can take out individual phrases. There is no doubt that you can find things that can be made to seem offensive,” Johnson said, to ridicule from the audience.
Another questioner said the Tory government was characterized by “carelessness and callousness.” In an intervention that was loudly applauded by the audience, the questioner talked about the government’s treatment of immigrants, of people on benefits and of the victims of a tower block fire in London.
Not Buying It
The issue of trust came up again when talking about the National Health Service. One junior doctor asked why people should trust Johnson’s promises of more money for the NHS when “we’ve got years of cuts and people are dying.” Johnson responded again by talking about his time running London.
Corbyn had a tough start, asked by his first questioner whether businesses should be “frightened” about a Labour government, and challenged by another audience member about antisemitism and misogyny in his party. “I don’t buy this nice old grandpa,” he said of the Labour leader’s image.
Liberal Democrat Leader Jo Swinson was questioned about her assertion at the start of the campaign that she could be the country’s next prime minister. “Do you now agree how ridiculous that sounded?” she was asked.
Swinson replied that she was “dismayed” by the choice the country is being presented of a government led by either Johnson or Corbyn, pointing out that her party is standing in more than 600 seats.
She was asked about her party’s record in coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015, including her own backing for benefits cuts and support for university tuition fees.
Her party’s signature policy, that if it wins a majority it would simply cancel Brexit, went down badly with audience members who called it undemocratic. “In terms of our policy, we are being very straightforward as a party that we want to stop Brexit,” Swinson said. “You might agree, you might disagree with us, but we have been crystal clear.”
If it doesn’t win a majority, she said her party would pursue a second referendum. She could “work collaboratively” with Labour, but said she couldn’t support Corbyn in government, citing antisemitism in his party. Asked if she could form a coalition with the Conservatives again, she replied “certainly not under Boris Johnson.”
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, said she was confident she could get an independence referendum next year, despite Corbyn’s insistence he wouldn’t agree to one for at least two years. She said he’d be willing to pay her price to get into office.
But the alternative argument also holds: Having opened by saying she couldn’t “in good conscience ever put Boris Johnson into Number 10,” Sturgeon would have no one to support but Corbyn, even if he didn’t offer her what she wanted.
(Updates to add detail starting in eighth paragraph.)
–With assistance from Charlotte Ryan and Greg Ritchie.
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