• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Photo/Getty Images

Who is more unwanted – Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson?

The phrase you hear a lot since the UK general election was announced is “hold your nose and vote”. On December 12, as if blocking out an almighty stench, a nation will pinch its nostrils and enter the voting booth. If few want Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, the question is: who is more unwanted?

As a friend said to me, it’s a choice between hanging and the electric chair. That may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s hard to overstate just how unappealing the two men are to a huge swathe of voters in the middle.

Since the downfall of Margaret Thatcher almost 30 years ago, British politics has been focused on the centre ground. That era is now over, as political momentum has lurched to the extremes.

In some ways, Johnson isn’t a natural right-winger. But he is a natural opportunist. And he spotted that the way to become leader of the Conservative Party was to move to the right, where an ageing Tory membership was desperate for a saviour from the European Union (EU).

Corbyn is a natural left-winger. He’s a man who supports the regime that created the economic catastrophe in Venezuela. His favourite newspaper is the communist Morning Star. He is to nuanced politics what Steve Hansen is to ballroom dancing.

One candidate is a raging egomaniac, the other an unreconstructed ideologue. In theory, there is a large space in the middle of the UK waiting to be claimed by a moderate third force. And, in theory, the Liberal Democrats could be that force. But, in theory, I could captain the England football team.

So, the choice, as all commentators agree, is between Johnson and Corbyn. Although a public-spending bidding war has broken out, with both sides promising to end austerity, the real contest is based on fear. If you don’t want Johnson, says Labour, then you have to vote for Corbyn. And if you don’t vote Johnson, say the Tories, you’ll end up with Corbyn.

It’s a tacit acknowledgment of the shortcomings of their leaders. But it’s also an appeal to the centre ground, for which both leaderships have barely disguised contempt. They don’t want to appease centrists; they just want to scare them into leaning their way.

The architects of this strategy are two Machiavellians who are the pair’s chief advisers. In Johnson’s corner is a character called Dominic Cummings, who was the strategist for the successful leave-the-EU campaign. He is a strange, shadowy figure who gets his kicks out of disruption. Think of a nerdy English version of Steve Bannon.

Corbyn’s cornerman is an ex-colleague of mine, Seumas Milne, one-time comment editor of the Guardian. Milne is a famously controlled and controlling presence. The son of a former director-general of the BBC, he attended one of the most exclusive private schools in the country, where he developed a fondness for communism.

After Oxford, he worked for a pro-Soviet magazine produced by the Communist Party of Great Britain, and ever since has remained a dogged friend to any enemy of the US. Perhaps the politician Milne, Corbyn and their clique least admire is Tony Blair, the Labour Party’s most successful ever prime minister.

Johnson, by contrast, makes a show of admiring Winston Churchill – whose grandson he chucked out of the Conservative Party. But I’m not sure he venerates Churchill quite as much as Corbyn loathes Blair. The politician Johnson most loves is himself.

He believes with every fibre of his being that he should be prime minister. Corbyn looks like a retired relieving teacher who’s been reluctantly thrust on to the stage of history. Ultimately, when hands are removed from noses, that difference in attitude will probably decide the contest.

This column was first published in the November 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.