Michael Heseltine, the Tory grandee and former deputy prime minister, has suggested a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn could be less damaging than Brexit.
The peer made the claim, which is remarkable for a senior Conservative, in an interview for the Limehouse podcast about liberal and EU politics, as he was pressed on how catastrophic he believes Brexit will be for the UK.
Heseltine, a longstanding pro-EU politician, signalled that he still views a Labour government as having a negative effect on the country, but said leaving the EU could be worse in the long term. He also suggested Labour would eventually turn against Brexit and the Conservatives would be “left holding the baby”, as leaving the EU grows more unpopular.
Asked what could happen under five years of a Corbyn government, he said: “Well, we have survived Labour governments before. Their damage tends to be short-term and capable of rectification. Brexit is not short-term and is not easily capable of rectification. There will be those who question whether the short-term pain justifies the avoidance of the long-term disaster.”
Heseltine argued public opinion was already beginning to move against Brexit and Labour would end up changing its current position to one in favour of the EU, which could put the Conservatives in trouble with their pro-remain voters.
“If you look at the polls there is probably a bigger majority against Brexit than the referendum secured but that, I think, will continue to happen and it will become more and more unpopular as people realise what it’s all about,” he said in the podcast, named after the declaration that gave rise to the Socal Democratic party (SDP), and hosted by activist William Porteous.
“When that happens, the Labour party will move, and the present government will be left holding the baby. But then you have got to realise the present government is supported by large numbers of people as opposed to Brexit as I am. How long will they remain within the tribe and loyal to the party?”
The Conservative peer made clear that his views on the Labour leader had not changed, but argued the “most interesting thing about Jeremy Corbynis that he is now considered to be a potential prime minister.
“People of my generation could never have anticipated that… He was always someone to the extreme of his party arguing causes for which there was virtually no support within his party. But such is the dynamic of Brexit that he is now seen as a potential prime minister,” he said.
Heseltine is one of a small band of pro-EU Conservatives, along with former chancellor Ken Clarke, who have argued that Brexit should not happen. On the Labour side, former prime minister Tony Blair is campaigning for an end to Brexit, while the Liberal Democrats are pushing for a second referendum.
As for how to stop Brexit, Heseltine said: “I think [a second referendum] would be a vehicle for ending Brexit, but personally I would rather parliament to do it either if this present parliament became hostile or because in an election the issue was rethought and a subsequent parliament did it. My preoccupation is ending Brexit: the means, well anything to hand.”
Clarke told another episode of the same podcast that he would “love to reverse the referendum if I thought we could, but I don’t think we can”.
He said he thought referendums were “a daft way of running things” so it would be better for parliament to decide to back into the EU but this was unlikely to happen.
“The political class are terrified of doing that. So the reality, which I’ve had to come to terms with, is that we obviously are leaving the EU and I’m trying to minimise the damage and retain as close a relationship as we possibly can,” he said.
Clarke also said Corbyn had “risen to the job of being quite a credible leader” of the opposition, but he did not believe the public would vote for him as prime minister.