If bearded, beige-suited Jeremy Corbyn, the new far-left Labour leader, is the black swan of British politics, then David Cameron is the country’s white one. Cameron is an obvious prime minister, one so suited to privilege and power, he seems somewhat blasé about it, while Corbyn looks understandably astonished.
The two men agree on almost nothing, yet they have already proved politically useful to each other—Cameron for advancing the economic austerity that Corbyn supporters united against, and Corbyn for being the most laughably unelectable opposition leader the Tories could ever hope for.
In this sense, Corbyn and Cameron must secretly be grateful for each other—except when it comes to the matter of the upcoming EU referendum. For, on this one point, the Labour and Tory leadership were actually meant to come together.
Following the general election last May, Cameron reiterated his promise to hold an “in-out” referendum on Europe, in which Britons would be allowed to decide whether or not the U.K. should remain a member of the EU. He has until the end of 2017 to do so, although rumour has it the vote is planned for October of next year. One thing is certain: Cameron will spend the next year negotiating with EU leaders in the hope of getting the United Kingdom a better deal, though precisely what that deal would be remains to be seen. Given that he has already made it clear he wants to stay in the EU at all cost, Cameron’s leveraging power with EU leaders looks rather limited. Add to that his unbending stance on Syrian refugees and it’s clear he’s not gaining any allies in Europe.
Until a few weeks ago, the prime minister could at least count on Labour to back him up domestically. The outgoing leader, Ed Miliband, like most of the Labour leadership contenders, gave unwavering support to the U.K.’s EU membership. Corbyn does not share this view. To say he is anti-EU would not be entirely correct, but he is certainly a euro-skeptic. Corbyn voted against Britain’s EU membership at the last referendum in 1975, and seems to regard the entire capitalist project with a degree of moral disgust. As a politician, he is protectionist by nature, a campaigner for disarmament and workers’ rights. He seems to see the EU, like the finance sector, as something of a capitalist conspiracy to keep the bankers rich and regular folks poor. However, he has vaguely allowed that EU legislation does contain broad protection for workers’ rights, which he supports.
At this point, Corbyn is taking a reserved stance on the matter of the U.K.’s membership in Europe. He wants to see it reformed, but almost certainly not in the same way Cameron does. According to some political commentators, this is only sensible. “The new leader’s position on the EU referendum is the only one that makes sense—other than UKIP [the U.K. Independence Party]’s,” the Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins recently wrote. “It is a refusal to decide for or against continued British membership of the EU until we know what that really means.” Corbyn’s critics, on the other hand, have accused him of prevaricating.
Out on the fringes, UKIP is girding for all-out battle. The party may have only a single MP, but its leader, Nigel Farage, now says his chief concern is getting out of the EU. Speaking before his party’s conference last week, he told reporters, “I’m not deserting the party, but winning the referendum is absolutely key, and that’s where our energies must go.” UKIP might be hobbled in parliament, but its surprise victory at last year’s European elections, in which it won 4.4 million of the popular vote, shows there is huge support for its hard stance on exiting the EU. Add this to the deepening divisions within Cameron’s party, and the approaching referendum begins to look like something of a crapshoot.
Cameron’s gang is said to have laughed and cheered in the halls of Westminster at the outlandish prospect of Corbyn as opposition leader. But with black swans come black-swan effects, in this case, the unforeseen resistance to Cameron’s campaign for Britain’s continued membership in Europe. If the prime minister loses his own proposed in-out referendum, it will be a supreme embarrassment, one that will open up a political chasm within his party and likely lead to his own early resignation.
The Tories might laugh at Corbyn, but his leadership could be the key to their own political unravelling.