Jeremy Corbyn's aides struggled to put him at the heart of the anti-Brexit campaign

The Labour leader's critics say he didn't really want to campaign for Britain to stay in the European Union. Footage from April shows his inner circle had trouble getting him to stump for Remain.
June 29, 2016, 8:35pm
Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn (L) leaves his home in North London on June 29. Photo by Sean Dempsey/EPA

Jeremy Corbyn's inner circle planned to unite the Labour Party in a "high energy" campaign to vote Remain in the June 23 referendum on the European Union, with their leader "at the heart of it," but expressed reservations about whether he would commit. Now that the United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU, Corbyn's lukewarm support for the Remain campaign has led to a mass revolt within Labour that is threatening to topple him.

On Tuesday, 80 percent of Labour members of Parliament rejected his leadership in a no-confidence vote, with one, Alan Johnson, accusing the leader's office of "working against the rest of the Party," which supported the UK remaining in the European Union.

A dialogue captured in April by a VICE News crew, while filming a documentary on Corbyn's leadership that was published earlier this month, appears to contradict the official line from Corbyn's office that "Jeremy and his team worked hard" for the Remain cause.

Watch VICE News' Corbyn insiders struggled to get the UK Labour Party leader to fight Brexit:

In the brief exchange, Labour Head of Events Kat Fletcher, a key Corbyn aide, discusses with Johnson the Remain campaign conceived by John McDonnell, the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer — the equivalent of a Treasury minister — and a close ally of Corbyn.

When Johnson asks Fletcher if she can "make it happen with Jeremy", Fletcher is non-committal. "[It's] beyond me," she replies. "I am doing my best, but I need help, right?"

That lack of enthusiasm has riled critics of the party leader, a member of Labour's left wing who comes from a political tradition skeptical of the European Union.

"I get the impression that [Fletcher] thinks it's going to be very difficult to get Jeremy and John [McDonnell] all lined up to run a fully engaged pro-EU campaign," member of Parliament Chris Bryant, who reviewed the dialogue, told VICE News. "From my own experience it was often a daily battle to try and get either of them to appear on the Labour bus or agree to a speech. It was just really hard work." Bryant was a prominent voice in the Remain campaign.

"All too often Jeremy – and for that matter John McDonnell as well – effectively undermined the Remain campaign either by ineptitude or by the arguments they were putting or sometimes by directly attacking the Remain campaign," Bryant said. "We just failed to deliver anything. And that's because Jeremy himself, Jeremy's office, just weren't up to it."

The dialogue was recorded on April 14, after Corbyn delivered a speech at Senate House urging Labour supporters to embrace the EU "warts and all." While no faces appear, a Labour source, who was present for some of the discussion, confirmed that it took place between the named parties.

In the clip, Fletcher tells Johnson that McDonnell "is up for a (...) high energy, high opt-in, Jeremy-at-the-heart-of-it campaign."

"We're not planning on low opt-in, low profile," Johnson says. "We want Jeremy out there." Then the member of parliament asks the leader's aide, twice, "And you can make it happen with Jeremy?"

Fletcher hesitates and responds: "[It's] beyond me."

"I am doing my best," she adds, "but I need help, right?"

Johnson replies that she will have "all the help we can give you".

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That may not have been enough. McDonnell, one of the most prominent members of the opposition's shadow cabinet, went on to anger pro-Remain Labour MPs by claiming it "discredits" Labour to share a platform with the Conservative Party, which supported Remain as well. Corbyn planned a holiday mid-campaign and was accused by another MP of sabotaging Labour's pro-Remain cause with a "willfully abysmal" performance.

A spokesperson for the Labour leader's office told VICE News that "Jeremy Corbyn led the Labour In campaign calling for Remain and reform. It was Jeremy Corbyn's campaign, clearly laying out the case for reform of the EU that resonated with Labour voters who voted for Remain by a ratio of two to one".

Simon Ostrovsky contributed to this report.

Follow Ben Bryant and Ben Ferguson on Twitter: @benbryant @fergusonben

Watch VICE News' Jeremy Corbyn: The Outsider: