For God’s sake, how much longer will it take? For three long, grim, post-referendum years, the Labour party have been trying to pretend that standing in the middle of the road is a sensible approach to traffic safety.
But not any more. Because hurtling towards them are the two wannabe Jeremy Clarksons of contemporary politics: Nigel Farage in a turbo-charged SUV, like Toad of Toad Hall after a long night in the pub, and Boris Johnson in a souped-up old Jag, detritus strewn across the back seats, hunched over the steering wheel muttering: ‘Brakes? Who needs brakes when all you need is to trust Boris?’
So it’s time to get out of the way. And that must mean heading to the side of the road marked Remain. Nothing else makes sense, and it looks as if the majority of the shadow cabinet – finally – have realised it. Let no one accuse them of acting in haste.
By the end of next month, the UK will have a new prime minister. If it’s Boris Johnson, his bumbling incompetence is likely to leave the country toppling over a no-deal Brexit cliff-edge. With the Labour party – well, doing what exactly? Still mumbling about being committed to the result of the 2016 referendum, despite everything that has happened since?
I assume that members of the shadow cabinet read The Guardian. So they will have seen this article by the founder of the YouGov polling organisation, Peter Kellner, in which he points out that barely half of the voters who voted Labour in the 2017 general election would do so now. More than a third would vote instead for one of the pro-Remain parties.
Fine, you may say. But what about those crucial Labour seats in the Midlands and north of England where the majority of voters voted Leave in the referendum? Well, guess what: three years is a long time in politics and things have moved on. According to Kellner, the national Brexit mood, judging by an average of recent polls, has shifted from 52-48% pro-Leave in 2016 to 56-44% pro-Remain now.
The shift, he says, has been driven by two main factors. ‘The first is demographic (older, mainly leave, voters dying while overwhelmingly pro-remain teenagers are reaching voting age). The second is Labour voters changing their minds – especially in the northern and midlands heartlands (my italics). One particular group that has swung decisively to remain are Britain’s nurses. Many of them were persuaded by the promise of an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, and they now feel they were deceived.’
So the message couldn’t be clearer. With the country still as deeply divided as it was at the time of the referendum, if not more so, the appointment of one of the architects of the pro-Leave campaign to head the UK government will force Labour to abandon its policy of trying to appeal to voters on both sides of the divide.
Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that he wants to unite a divided country is all well and good, apart from the fact that you can’t straddle a divide that goes far deeper than the niceties of trading arrangements with our neighbours or the precise monitoring mechanisms along the Irish border.
This debate is now about the soul of Britain. Perhaps it always was, but we failed to see it in time. It is between those who want to live in a country that welcomes diversity and embraces tolerance, or one that has turned inwards on itself, retreating towards bigotry and extreme nationalism. Can there be any doubt which side the Labour party should be on?
Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson put it as well as anyone: ‘European is who we are and who we have always been. Our members are remain. Our values are remain. Our hearts are remain. We need our Labour party to be true to who we are and be loud and proud in support of Europe.’
If Jeremy Corbyn and those around him can’t endorse every word of that, then Labour is done for. The millions of voters who turned their backs on the party in last month’s European parliament elections will not return to the fold without an unambiguous change of tone from the leader’s office.
Soon, the Lib Dems will have a new leader: probably Jo Swinson, young, female, and plugged in to the 2019 zeitgeist in a way that so far Mr Corbyn has signally failed to manage. And in Germany, the Green party has now overtaken both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats to become the country’s most popular party.
Of course, it could never happen here. Just as Nigel Farage could never win a second European election, or Boris Johnson become prime minister. Mr Corbyn has never been much good at adapting to new political realities, but the time for prevarication has run out.
Waiting for the autumn party conference is not an option. The 31 October Brexit deadline looms, as does an emergency general election.
The party – and the country -- will need a crystal clear message from the shadow cabinet. They meet next Tuesday.