Is Jeremy Corbyn The Brexit Camp's Secret Weapon?

Jeremy Corbyn Remain
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in central London, June 14, 2016. Corbyn is an uneasy pro-EU campaigner. Dylan Martinez/Reuters

As campaign appearances go, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's half hour grilling by an audience of young voters live on Sky News on Monday was unconventional. The unpolished left-winger is ostensibly campaigning for a "Remain" vote in Britain's EU referendum but at times, as he rattled off the evils of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), questioned the legality of Brussels' refugee returns deal with Turkey and said the bloc should be "more democratic," you'd hardly have known it.

Vote Leave, the official anti-EU campaign, has even taken to quoting the Labour leader out of context in its campaigning materials, and Monday will have handed them plenty of new soundbites. The moment where Corbyn attacked the bloc for turning Greece into a "transit camp" for refugees, perhaps, or the part where he said how TTIP would bring Europeans the worst working conditions and standards from the U.S.

So is Corbyn the leave campaign's secret weapon? During his long, awkward career as a rebellious backbencher, Corbyn has openly expressed Euroskeptic opinions: "I am not a lover of the European Union," he said on Monday. He had, he said, come to a "rational decision we should stay to try and improve it."

Monday made it clear that Corbyn's heart and soul are not completely in this campaign. In a revealing moment, asked about Chancellor George Osborne's comment that a post-Brexit recession would hit the poorest hardest, Corbyn said: "It's a very odd statement coming from George Osborne. It's the first I've heard of it." Anyone who has been watching the campaign closely has probably heard that argument more times than they care to count.

But Corbyn's unorthodox style does have something to recommend it; it's grittily, pessimistically believable. The EU, runs Corbyn's argument, might be distant, complex, unbending, skewed towards big corporations and woefully inadequate on humanitarian issues, but it's probably better than nothing. "If there was no European Union and instead you had 28 member states would there be any co-ordinated response?" he asked in response to a question about the refugee crisis, "Probably not." His view on the environment is similar: Europe's environmental protections need strengthening, he thinks, but "You can't deal with pollution behind a national frontier."

Perhaps Corbyn, as he heads to the ballot box on Thursday with a shrug and votes for the lesser of what he perceives as two evils, will be much closer to your average voter than any passionate Europhile could ever be. "Whatever the result I want to see better working conditions across Europe, I want to see better environmental protections across Europe," he said, "It's much harder if we leave." Sounds reasonable enough. Remain will hope that Labour voters across the land will shrug along, grit their teeth and join him.