The belief in the leader’s office that all publicity is good means they might actually think yesterday went well, writes Paul Richards
Everything was prepared. Nothing left to chance. Jeremy Corbyn’s spin doctors had crafted the new messages, and set up a raft of high-profile interviews with major broadcasters. They had prepped their boss, roleplaying Humphrey Appleby and the rest, and Corbyn was ready. The reboot. The relaunch. Corbyn 2.0. The answer to all those cynics with their ‘Where is Jeremy?’ memes and cruel jokes about nap-time. And what policy could be better than a shift on freedom of movement? It speaks to wavering Labour voters. It piles pressure on the Tories. It shows Labour gets it. The papers were given ‘trails’ of the speech, and the killer line that Labour was no longer ‘wedded to free movement’.
So Team Corbyn must be jubilant with today’s headlines all about capping high incomes. Wait, what? High incomes? Maximum wages? Targeting footballers. And government contractors. Or something. That wasn’t on the grid. There was no pre-briefing to the media. No PLP brief. No experts lined up to support the idea. Nothing, in fact. You might almost think that Corbyn went into an interview with the Today programme at 8.10am to talk about the free movement idea in his speech later that day, and instead ended up saying the first thing that came into his head.
Journalists leapt on the story like piranha. Where would the cap be set? Above Corbyn’s own salary? Or even higher, around, say, the sort of money paid to newspaper columnists and news anchors? Details emerged as the Millbank media round progressed. The policy was under active discussion. It would include Premier League footballers. Although the policy had not worked in any country anywhere in the world, it would make Britain fairer, somehow. Even the inventor of Corbynomics Richard Murphy said the idea ‘made no economic sense’ and another ex-economic adviser Danny Blanchflower called it ‘totally idiotic’. One of Corbyn’s spinner claimed his boss had ‘misspoke’ while another said he meant every word. By teatime, the nation knew that Labour was against money or something like that. And footballers.
Then came the big speech, delivered in what looked like a cowshed in Peterborough hastily repainted magnolia for the occasion. Time for some straight-talking, honest politics. We are not wedded to free movement … but we do not rule it out. The line, so carefully crafted and briefed out, had changed over night. Corbyn, after a lifetime of protest, was now protesting against himself. Jeremy Corbyn had read in the mainstream media what Jeremy Corbyn was going to say about freedom of movement, and Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t happy about it. Jeremy Corbyn wanted it to be known that Jeremy Corbyn should not be ruling out freedom of movement, and straight-talking, honest Jeremy Corbyn should be unafraid to say so. If he wanted to be more like Donald Trump, denying things he had said earlier the same day but we all heard him say, would do it.
It was a day when the Tories were on the back foot on the National Health Service. The winter crisis, entirely the product of Tory policy, it costing lives. The health secretary is about to abolish the four-hour waiting time target, sending queues round the block and making patients wait for a day or more in A&E. Every single one of the NHS’s 1.4 million staff, in every community in the land, look to Labour to defend the NHS. Instead they were told Labour would, or perhaps would not, be in favour of ending, or not, freedom of movement. You can question the wisdom, as Owen Jones has done, of shifting the focus from the NHS to Brexit at the very moment the government was at its most vulnerable. Instead, Jeremy Hunt was let off the hook, notwithstanding being chased down the road by Sky’s Beth Rigby. In a parallel universe, Hunt lost his job yesterday. Instead he was thanking his lucky stars.
But even if you agreed with Team Corbyn’s decision to drop the NHS in favour of Brexit, surely no-one can agree with the decision to announce the maximum wage policy (or Labour’s 100 per cent top rate of tax, as the Tories will no doubt call it). That is because there was no plan to do it. Corbyn, when asked later if it was planned, claimed it was. I think his pants are on fire. If you can show me a grid with yesterday’s date and the entry ‘launch maximum wage policy on the Today programme’ I will eat my words. Maybe those of us brought up on message discipline, and basic techniques of handling media interviews, are out of date. We are certainly out of fashion. But after yesterday, maybe some of those old skills, which made New Labour slippery yet effective, might be revived?
I imagine Team Corbyn think yesterday went well. They dominated the news agenda. On the principle that all publicity is good publicity, they are right. Corbyn is splashed all over the press today. Mind you, so is Trump.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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