Bernard Ingham: Why Jeremy Corbyn reminds me of Margaret Thatcher

Cartoon by Graeme Bandeira
Cartoon by Graeme Bandeira
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I’LL bet you never expected me to write this sentence: the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Opposition reminds me of Margaret Thatcher’s entry into No 10.

The reason is that they both took up their jobs without a press secretary. And that is where the similarities begin and end.

Thatcher remained a conviction politician. Less than a fortnight after his election, nobody – including, I suspect, Corbyn himself – knows whether his party will allow him to retain a single conviction from his Marxist past. His Fat Controller – deputy leader Tom Watson – is clearly in control of nothing but a shambles.

But to return to the sole Corbyn/Thatcher similarity. She came to office bristling with purpose – to make Britain great again – and desperately needing a press secretary because she wilfully refused to read the newspapers. They brought a veteran out of retirement to look after her relations with the media she ignored until they found a “permanent” replacement in me.

She was as readable as a book since she knew what she stood for. Once having taken a decision, I knew she would not change her mind. I was thus able to brief with authority, reinforcing the impression of a powerful leader. Life was pretty straightforward.

I think I would have shot myself had I been asked to be Corbyn’s press secretary instead of a chap called Neale Coleman who was described by Corbyn’s team as Director of Policy and Rebuttal. Not even a spin doctor. Poor fellow. It shouldn’t happen to a dog.

In fact, Corbyn does not need what is called a spin doctor at this stage. Instead, he urgently requires a psychiatrist specialising in re-education to re-programme him for his part.

Until he knows what he is doing, a spin doctor is at best a first-aider with sticking plaster.

Thirty one years of rebellion on the backbenches and endless hours of cultivating the hard Left’s firm grasp of fantasy, combined with his determination to look like a scruffy revolutionary instead of a potential Prime Minister, have left him singularly ill-equipped for his new role.

After that long, there is no certainty that he can be re-wired and made what an old-fashioned press secretary like me could regard as presentable. And I should know. I worked for four years for Tony Benn.

Benn may have been an unreconstructed Leftie rebel within the Cabinet. But he managed not to look out of place in what turned out to be the last of the Mohicans – a Labour government clinging by the whim of trade union saboteurs to the failed pale pink post-war socialist consensus.

In short, Corbyn and his Director of Policy and Rebuttal – not to mention the entire Labour movement – have a problem. It is Jeremy Corbyn himself. And no Prime Minister’s question time gimmicks can hide it.

His idea of ushering in a new politics by posing questions put by half a dozen of his 40,000 e-mail supporters is not merely risible; it is deeply insulting to every MP, including Labour Members, in suggesting that they are incapable of representing public views and queries.

In any case, the purpose of PMQs in our adversarial system is not just to hold the Prime Minister to account; it is a genuine battle for political ascendancy and party morale. As things stand, David Cameron faces an endless Parliament of easy triumphs.

So what’s new? Corbyn has spent 31 years rebelling against his own leaders and helping to raise Tory morale.

The Corbynistas of my native Hebden Bridge – a bunch of mostly offcumden trendies and totalitarian crackpots – must be wallowing in despair with their new leader’s daily recantations.

Which brings me back to my nightmare. As his press secretary – and assuming that I had refrained from shooting myself – I would have had to make four things clear to Corbyn:

– Make up your mind what you stand for and stick with it.

– Are you prepared to see off the 
trade unions, or kow tow to their every whim?

– Do you intend to look the part of a potential Prime Minister? The moment you appear again in baggy shorts, ankle socks and T shirt or flaunt your republicanism and anti-Britishness is when I walk out.

– When will you realise that you live in a capitalist and not a communist world?

The electorate is not ready to be turned into a walled-in East Germany to keep them and their brass in this once sceptr’d isle.

They want to advance, not be held back.