Corbyn and Johnson: non-apologies and no-shows


Things got so bad for Jeremy Corbyn this week that Labour had to open its stash of emergency documents. You know, the ones they kept in a glass box marked “break in case of attack by the chief rabbi”.

After an overnight monstering by a large man in a skull cap, Mr Corbyn needed to move the story on. His first attempt to do so had not gone well. He had already submitted himself to the ritual scourging for political sinners of a 30-minute interview with Andrew Neil. During this he humbly refused to apologise for the anti-Semitism in his party and — boldly — took several goes to agree that the phrase “Rothschild Zionists run . . . world governments” might just fall the wrong side of the anti-Semitic/not anti-Semitic divide. His preferred answer — “It should not be used” — lacked a bit of zing, sounding more like fashion advice on whether brown shoes are appropriate with a navy suit.

But as the controversy over the chief rabbi Ephraim Mervis’s unprecedented attack on Labour’s record on anti-Semitism refused to melt away, Labour decided to bring forward its weapon of mass distraction. It had been holding back leaked minutes of preliminary discussions between the US and the UK on a post-Brexit trade deal. These were not quite the smoking gun Labour claimed, showing as they did that US drug companies will push to open the National Health Service market and extend patents, which would cost the health service millions in the money it currently saves on generic medicines. This, proclaimed Mr Corbyn, was proof that Boris Johnson was going to sell out the NHS to Donald Trump. (Narrator: it wasn’t.)

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Perhaps the plan came from a political symptom checker. “If symptoms of distress caused by your record on anti-Semitism persist, reach for the NHS.” Mr Corbyn waved the 450 pages of documents — none of which actually showed anything other than what the US was asking for — as proof that vital drugs would become much more expensive. This is alarming. We’ve already filled the spare room with toilet roll and tinned tomatoes in case of a crash-out Brexit. Now I’ve got to buy Humira too? Admittedly, I don’t have Crohn’s disease or rheumatoid arthritis, but then I don’t eat tinned tomatoes either.

This was serious. A top attack line, combining Mr Trump, Brexit and a threat to the NHS in one fell swoop. Mr Johnson has been unequivocal that he will not agree to such a thing, so as long as you trust the prime minister . . . Still, the NHS is a hardy organisation. Labour has claimed every election since 1983 is about saving the NHS. It has lost six of them, but the NHS still seems to be here.

The next two weeks will tell us if the distraction is working. It may be more placebo than cure, but the ads would be good if it worked: “Experiencing anti-Semitism? Try trade documents.”

Mr Corbyn’s mauling left Tory strategists wondering if just maybe they should be busy on whichever night they might have scheduled the prime minister’s interview with Mr Neil. It would be an act of supreme political cowardice, but Mr Johnson may be up for that.

For a taste of what happens when he dodges scrutiny, Channel 4 replaced the absent Mr Johnson with a large ice-sculpture after he refused their invitation to participate in a debate on climate change. The Tories sent Michael Gove to Channel 4’s head office to gatecrash the event and apparently try to distract people from the debate they had chosen to skip by drawing attention to it. On Friday, Mr Johnson, a noted philanderer, turned up for a radio interview only to be asked how many children he had. Naturally he refused to answer, but he was never a details man.

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In the end he needn’t have worried about the Channel 4 stunt. The ice-sculpture held its shape pretty well, barely melting in the studio. In fact, you would fancy its chances against Mr Neil. Perhaps they should send it again.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

Follow Robert Shrimsley with myFT and on Twitter





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