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PETER OBORNE: Corbyn is a man of principle no more

Despite his numerous weaknesses and failings, Jeremy Corbyn has, for decades, offered one admirable quality to voters. That of being a politician of undoubted authenticity.

This has meant that, by the admittedly dismal standards of modern politicians, he has stood out as a man of principle. Indeed, that is one of his main attractions to young voters.

However, all that was blown to smithereens yesterday.

His speech about Labour’s Brexit policy was, I believe, one of the most cynical, calculating and amoral pieces of so-called oratory I have ever heard from a politician.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made a keynote speech as he sets out Labour's position on Brexit in Coventry on Monday (pictured)

Several times as I listened, I had to pinch myself as he made the case for Britain to stay a member of an EU customs union.

Here was the neo-Marxist, who has made it his life’s work to fight capitalism, placing himself in the same camp as the bosses’ organisation (the CBI), the Financial Times and the Bank of England.

Corbyn’s sudden alliance with big business goes against every bone in his body.

For, as recently as December, he railed against City ‘speculators and gamblers’ who are part of a ‘damaging and failed system that’s rigged for the few’.

Not only does his new policy of cosying up to big business betray his own personal principles, it is a slap in the face of those millions of Labour voters who want Britain to break from the Brussels straitjacket and who voted Brexit in the EU referendum.

Undoubtedly, they will see Corbyn as a traitor.

That is surely the view of Labour MP Frank Field — regarded by many as the most honourable MP in Parliament.

Field warned at the weekend that if Corbyn said a Labour government would keep Britain in an EU customs union after 2020, he would ‘rat on the people’s decision to leave’.

How ironic that Corbynistas hate Tony Blair for what they say is his hypocrisy and two-facedness. And yet, those are the same characteristics their hero showed yesterday.

The brutal truth is that on the great issue of our time, Jeremy Corbyn has played Judas to democracy.

This, remember, is the same man who voted for Britain to leave the European Economic Community (which preceded the EU) in 1975; who opposed the creation of the EU under the Maastricht Treaty (turning the EU into more of a superstate); who voted for a referendum on our membership of the EU, and the day after the vote itself called for the immediate invocation of Article 50 — the two-year notice to leave the EU.

Of course, Corbyn’s screeching U-turn is down to dirty politics rather than principles. He is positioning himself, as leader of the Opposition, to try to bring down the Government.

Labour MP Frank Field (pictured) warned that if Corbyn said a Labour government would keep Britain in an EU customs union after 2020, he would ‘rat on the people’s decision to leave’

In sum, he has sacrificed his reputation for integrity in the hope he can destroy Theresa May’s premiership.

Central to his calculation is that if he succeeds in getting rid of Mrs May and becomes prime minister himself, Labour supporters who voted for Brexit would forgive him.

They would do so, he thinks, because they would prefer a Labour government (albeit still shackled in part to Brussels) than a Tory government that has broken free from Brussels.

This, I reckon, is how Corbyn hopes his plan will work out.

Later this year, MPs will have to vote on the Government’s deal on leaving the EU.

Corbyn believes he might be able to muster the support of sufficient rebel Remainer Tories to defeat Mrs May.

Already, one, Anna Soubry, has tabled a potentially deadly amendment calling for Britain to remain in a customs union — precisely the policy adumbrated yesterday by Corbyn.

For her part, Soubry makes no secret of the fact that her desire to see Britain still shackled to the Brussels-based trading bloc is stronger than her loyalty to Mrs May.

Thus, Corbyn is cynically calculating that he can form an anti-democratic alliance with Europhile Tories and the Scottish Nationalists (who have 35 MPs) to topple the Tory Government. This is a life-and-death gamble.

Of course, there are precedents. In some ways, it is similar to the way the then Labour leader John Smith behaved over the Maastricht Treaty in 1993.

Although a passionate Europhile, Smith joined Prime Minister John Major’s Tory anti-European ‘bastard’ rebels in an attempt to bring down his government.

Tory MP Anna Soubry (pictured) has tabled a potentially deadly amendment calling for Britain to remain in a customs union

Although Smith narrowly failed, Major was so badly damaged that he never truly recovered.

Corbyn hopes to go one stage further, take down Mrs May and be in 10 Downing Street by Christmas.

I believe, however, that his audacious gamble will backfire.

Principally because the British people won’t let him unseat a government which is nobly carrying out the democratic wishes of the majority of the electorate.

Also, because people will see through Jeremy Corbyn’s amoral sell-out.

On the specifics of the argument, too, the Labour leader is intellectually flawed. He misunderstands the details.

For example, if Britain retains some trading rights with the EU, we would have to accept the terms put forward by Brussels — and that almost certainly would mean allowing practically unrestricted immigration from other European countries.

In any case, each of the remaining 27 EU countries would have to vote to accept the terms of a deal that a Corbyn-led British government would ask for with regard to a customs union.

Undoubtedly, countries such as Poland and Hungary, which want their peoples to travel freely across continental Europe, would try to force Britain to allow their citizens to come here freely.

This would mean that the UK would not regain control of its borders and immigration levels would remain high.

Yet countless studies have shown that it was worries about high levels of immigration from EU countries which were a key factor in so many Labour supporters backing Brexit in June 2016.

For them, Corbyn’s speech yesterday was a betrayal — and one which they will find hard to forgive.

There is another issue. This is that a trigger for the Brexit vote was that people wanted Britain to be free from Brussels’s crippling tariffs on non-EU goods.

These mean that foods imported from outside the EU are artificially priced much higher than they ought to be.

Similarly, Brussels keeps prices high by paying billions of euros in subsidies to French and German farmers, leading to higher costs for European consumers — including, of course, hard-pressed Labour voters — and making it much more difficult for farmers in the Third World to get access to the European market.

Ultimately, Jeremy Corbyn’s speech may prove to be a momentous one in the history of the Labour Party — but not for the reason he would have wanted.

I believe that he risks losing from the party a hardcore of its traditional supporters, particularly in the Midlands and North — around 30 per cent of its total support — who voted Brexit but feel they could never vote for a party that wants to keep Britain locked into parts of an EU superstate.