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A stunning message: true Labour supporters need to vote for Boris Johnson

Former Labour MPs Ian Austin (left) and John Woodcook
Former Labour MPs Ian Austin (left) and John Woodcook have both endorsed Boris Johnson for prime minister Credit: Jeff Gilbert for the telegraph

Two stalwarts of the Left are standing down – but only one is brave enough to speak out about Corbyn

It’s hard to imagine two hardier Labour loyalists than Ian Austin and Tom Watson. They were part of a crack squad who plotted Gordon Brown’s route to No 10, both fervently committed to their leader and party.

After Jeremy Corbyn took the reins, other MPs rather hoped that the team who so successfully dispatched Tony Blair might repeat their trick. They tried. But with the election weeks away, both have had to admit that they failed. They have now had to ask themselves whether they’d still vote Labour, and have resolved the dilemma in spectacularly different ways.

Both have always seen Corbyn as a tool of the hard Left, whose combination of Bolivarian socialism and IRA sympathy would be electorally toxic in normal political times. They fully expected him to fail in the last election, but when he didn’t they had to decide what to do next time.

Stay and fight, Watson urged colleagues: why hand the party over to the fanatics? Naive, Austin (eventually) concluded: the Corbynites have won. To stay is to serve them, to become a useful idiot in their diabolical project.

As deputy leader, Watson had been making some progress destabilising Corbyn and had even started to dismember his private office. Had this parliament lasted a few more years, there might have been a faint hope of Keir Starmer or another similar moderate taking over.

But when the snap election was called, time was up. Corbyn is already a stone’s throw from No 10. To stand as a Labour MP is – as Austin said – to serve as a foot soldier in Corbyn’s army.

 

Watson knows all this, but admitted none of it. He bowed out with bizarre jokes about gardening and promoting a diet book he’s planning to write. Of course, he says, he’ll be backing Corbyn in the campaign.

His resignation stunned Labour MPs who remember him begging them not to join the defection to Change UK earlier this year, and perhaps doing more than anyone to make sure the defection project failed. Only now, weeks before the election, has he realised that he is to blame for the collapse of most serious moves against Corbyn. So he has run off, in horror and panic.

Austin cannot bring himself to make light of all this, or pretend that he’s off to audition for Strictly Come Dancing. He has spent his life being serious about politics and spelled out, in brutally explicit terms, what all this means.

To vote Labour would risk passing No 10 to a man who always sides with Britain’s enemies, from Hezbollah to the Kremlin. And most shamefully of all, he said, a man who has let Labour become poisioned with anti-Jewish racism. Abstention is not enough; indeed, abstention might risk plunging Britain into the Corbynite nightmare. So the only option for traditional Labour voters who love their country is to back Boris Johnson.

Given that Austin devoted a significant chunk of his life to trying to crush the Conservatives, he will have choked on these words. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that he loathes Toryism, in ways he’d bluntly outline to me in the days when he would daily fight (and kill) for his party.

He looked a wreck when he was touring the broadcast studios, as if he was in shock at what he was hearing himself say. But it’s quite coherent: if you believe that Corbyn and his Marxist friends represent a grave threat to the country – let alone the party they captured – it’s not enough to keep quiet. You need to do all you can to vote against him.

The front page of this week’s Jewish Chronicle, begging non-Jews not to vote Labour, is a reminder of how high the stakes are – especially to those (like Austin) from a Jewish family. The dilemma was not nearly so acute last time, when no one seriously expected Corbyn to be in power. But now, a hung parliament is still the most likely outcome and the SNP stands ready to put Corbyn into No 10 in return for an independence referendum.

In the British system, you cannot vote for the party and not the leader: it’s always the same thing. One Labour MP, John Woodcock, tried to break this link last time: if elected, he said, he’d serve his constituents but would not vote to put Corbyn into No 10. But this time, he admits even this isn’t enough. Having quit the party he now says that, like Austin, he’ll vote Conservative.

The agony this has involved for both of them shows the Tory problem in scaling what they call the “red wall”. There are plenty of Leave-voting constituencies which feel abandoned by the metropolitan bias of the Labour Party – but these are people who don’t hop from one party to another with the cheerfulness of Chuka Umunna. They can be second- or third-generation Labour voters whose families have tended to use the word “Tory” as an anathema.

As Austin knows, his argument will be a hard sell not just in his native Dudley but Bishop Auckland, Bolsover and the other Labour towns that Tories need to compensate for inevitable losses in Remain-voting seats.

A fair number of Labour MPs will now be looking at Tom Watson and Ian Austin, and be wondering which one behaved more honourably. Whose example it is best to follow.

There is no shortage of Corbyn sceptics: of the 223 Labour MPs standing for re-election, 125 tried to depose him in the last leadership election. Some will now tell themselves that victory might not be so bad, that parliament could control him. “We tell ourselves little lies,” says one Labour MP. “It’s the only way we keep going.”

The Tories were astonished to have Austin’s endorsement, especially as he didn’t even try to fish for any kind of favours beforehand. Sajid Javid’s speech today – promising an extra £100 billion of spending over five years – is all aimed at Labour seats. But Austin has now given them an argument more potent than any promise from a Treasury dossier: that a victory for Corbynites would be a calamity for the Labour movement and the country. And as a consequence, traditional, patriotic Labour voters need to vote for Boris Johnson next month.

Quite a message. The outcome of the election may well depend on its success.