One of the strangest rumours swirling around Jeremy Corbyn right now is that he doesn’t really want to become prime minister.
Those rumours aren’t helped by the fact that Corbyn occasionally drops hints — perhaps unintentionally, but nonetheless repeatedly — that he doesn’t expect to ever live in No.10 Downing Street.
The best example of this was in an interview he gave to the New Yorker magazine in May, little noticed in the UK at the time. Writer Sam Knight spent several days following Corbyn around and came to the conclusion that Corbyn is happiest campaigning, not leading. On May 5, Corbyn had lunch in an Islington cafe with Knight. This is their conversation:
During our lunch, I asked what Britain might look like under a Corbyn premiership. He challenged the premise of the question. “Well, it is not going to be under Jeremy Corbyn,” he said. “I am hoping there will be a Labour Government, of which I will be obviously a big part. But it’s about empowering people. That is what democracy is about. Is it going to be complicated? Sure. Is it going to be difficult? Absolutely. Are we going to achieve things? Oh, yes.” He smiled and took a bite of his omelette. Corbyn’s sons stopped by to say hello. He signed some T-shirts for Bolivian orphans. And then he started talking about an olive tree that grows in his garden.
And then there was his contentious exchange with Channel 4’s Jon Snow in June. Snow — who has clearly heard the rumour — wanted Corbyn to address head-on whether he actually wants to win a general election and run the country. This is their exchange:
Snow: Do you really ever want to be prime minister? I mean, with the appalling burdens it inflicts upon you and your way of life?
Corbyn: The burdens it inflicts on people who suffer under this government, or any other government, that doesn’t provide the housing people need, that doesn’t provide the schools they need, that doesn’t provide the hope they need, is far worse. Of course, I want to lead this party, I will lead this party in order to put forward an alternative, and lead this party to win an election.
Snow: I haven’t heard the phrase “I want to be prime minister.”
Corbyn: You first heard it now, of course I want to be.
Snow: No, no say it.
Corbyn: I’ve said it to you, OK?
Snow: “I want to be prime minister.”
Corbyn: No, I’ve just said it to you, please, this isn’t a school game.
Snow: No, no, but I have asked you that question.
Corbyn: I’ve answered the question, I’m leading this party to win an election and therefore I will be prime minister to do that, thank you.
On the one hand, this is merely the latest example of the media unfairly baiting Corbyn. You can see in the video that Corbyn believes Snow is deliberately splitting a hair in an attempt to get a headline:
But at the same time, Corbyn’s initial response to the question is weak. Asked whether he wants to be PM, he replies that he wants to lead the party — which is a very different thing.
Another version of this verbal tic came up in the Vice documentary on Corbyn from the beginning of June. There is a scene (at 18:00) in which Corbyn is rehearsing for prime minister’s question time in Parliament. He needs an aide to play the role of the David Cameron while he runs through his prepared questions.
Corbyn [ joking]: Who wants to be prime minister?
Aide: You do, actually.
Corbyn: Ha ha, no come on, does anybody want to be prime minister?
Clearly, Corbyn is making a joke. But he is making a joke on-camera, in front of a documentary crew that he approved, and the reporter making it, Ben Ferguson, is a Labour party member who voted for Corbyn. Only the off-camera aide seems to be aware that saying “Who wants to be prime minister?” in front of the media might look bad.
You can also write this off as Corbyn’s authenticity. He is not going to change his casual demeanour and start acting “presidential” just because he was elected. His popularity stems from honesty.
But Corbyn has been honest about his disinterest in power before. When he first ran for the party leadership in June 2015, he told The Guardian that he didn’t expect to win:
“We had a discussion among a group of us on the left about how we might influence future developments of the party. All of us felt the leadership contest was not a good idea — there should have been a policy debate first. There wasn’t, so we decided somebody should put their hat in the ring in order to promote that debate. And, unfortunately, it’s my hat in the ring.”
Why did it have to be his hat? “Well, Diane [Abbott] and John [McDonnell] have done it before, so it was my turn.” So he took some persuading? “Yeah. I have never held any appointed office, so in that sense it’s unusual, but if I can promote some causes and debate by doing this, then good. That’s why I’m doing it.” He offers a tiny smile. Blink and you miss it. “At my age I’m not likely to be a long-term contender, am I?”
By November 2015, after he had won, Labour parliamentary staff had repeatedly told Business Insider that they don’t believe their new leader ever wanted to lead the party.
So, deep down, if Corbyn doesn’t actually believe he will become prime minister, why is he bothering to hang on to the leadership of the Labour party? It doesn’t make any sense … unless you believe the other rumour about Corbyn, which is that he is forcing the party into a split. In that theory, the Corbyn faction and its Momentum supporters either expel the current crop of Blairite MPs from their constituency parties or form their own party around Momentum’s 12,000 members and the 250,000 Labour members who voted for Corbyn.
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