As Labour hesitate on Brexit, their moment passes

3 Feb 2018

 On a week like this, where a leaked government report has predicted that every possible outcome of Brexit will damage the UK’s economic growth, it seems fitting to talk about the hubristic incompetence of a divided Tory government blindly driving us into the disastrous act of pointless patriotism that is Brexit.

 

The report leaked to Buzzfeed at the start of this week predicts that Britain will at best see a 2% decrease in growth in the event of the softest possible Brexit. A source within the Whitehall Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) has said the report was not made public because it was ‘embarrassing’ but Steve Baker, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, all but mocked the assessment in yesterday’s Emergency Question put to the House of Commons by Labour’s Keir Starmer.

 

It is not hard to point fingers and claim that this party, perpetually divided by a chasm of irreconcilable views, is simply not fit to lead. But as the Conservatives continue to falter, the left should nervously ask itself firstly why Labour is still not surging ahead in the polls, and secondly, where on earth Labour’s coherent response to the Brexit negotiations is.

 

Carefully tiptoeing between the Brexit heartlands many Labour MPs represent the hordes of Remainers who tactically voted Labour at the last election as a vote against the Conservatives. Corbyn’s response thus far has been to very silently back a Brexit that would see the UK out of the Single Market and Customs Union, while his MPs have been very explicit about their contrary views. It’s fair to say Labour have their fair share of difficulties in uniting the party around Brexit.

 

For all the speculation, May is unlikely to leave. It seems her ‘toughest time yet’ has been a weekly occurrence since she took office, and no one should underestimate the Conservative party’s ability to act like all is under control. Another resignation, potentially triggering another snap election, the fourth major national vote in just four years or so, would be as undesired by the population as it would be destructive for the Tories.

 

The majority of May’s backbenchers understand this. They also understand she is in the near impossible position of compromising between the sensible decision to soften the Brexit blow on the economy while keeping the patriotic narrative of a clean break from the EU alive on her back benches and around the country.

 

Of course, staunch Brexiteers are in open rebellion; the nostalgic dream of a hard Brexit, for many the dying embers of the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, is rapidly giving way to compromise and sensible decisions. It remains well within the realm of possibility that the total Tory meltdown that Labour have been waiting for over the past three years won’t actually happen. This is something Corbyn should be ready for but his position is hazy on Brexit, to say the least. Is there anything Labour can do to clear the smoke? From least to most likely to actually happen, here are the Opposition’s options:

 

Led by Corbyn, Labour’s hard left could come forward with a more detailed and unapologetically hard Brexit, in line with the long standing Eurosceptic wing of the Labour party, going above and beyond the EU in matters such as regulation and worker’s rights. By explicitly writing off the Single Market and the Customs Union, more clearly so than they have already, Labour would be seen to be respecting the will of the British people.

 

This will not happen unanimously because most Labour MPs and voters are Remainers and back the party to oppose a hard Brexit, not implement it. Whilst it isn’t impossible that Corbyn is playing a long game of passively backing Brexit, hoping to then get into government and implement his vision of a left-wing Britain outside the EU, he knows that to say as much in any detail now would see him lose support.

 

 

More likely, but still unlikely, is the polar opposite - Labour could support a second referendum, on the basis that the people are entitled to change their minds. Unfortunately for Chuka Ummuna and co, outwardly opposing Brexit is political suicide. The land is still ripe with Brexit ideology, and getting off the extremely ambiguous Brexit hype train would make it too easy for the Conservatives, even the moderate ones, to label Labour as traitors to the democratic right of the British people. One need only take a brief look at the Liberal Democrats to understand where outright opposition to Brexit gets you.

 

Corbyn could also heed to the demands of the centre left and his Remainer electorate, and call for Britain to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union. But assuming this is the trajectory to be taken by the government which, thanks to Hammond among others, seems to be the case at the moment, then Labour wouldn’t really be opposing anything, and would be left all but agreeing with the Conservatives on Brexit.

 

Finally, Labour can just wait, which is what they’ve done until now. They can wait for the Brexit deal to be so bad it becomes an evident political impossibility, back remain in a second referendum, and hope to defeat the Tories at the subsequent election. Or they can wait for Brexit, and the economic damage that comes with it to become a reality, and scathe the Tories for it in the early 2020s election. Judging by Labour’s lack of immediate response to the government’s antics, be it Davis’ non-existent impact assessments or the DExEU’s ‘embarrassing’ economic report, the waiting game is, for now, the prevailing strategy from Corbyn.

 

But in a time when Tory turmoil is the talk of the town, and when Labour have just come off the back of an extremely successful election, waiting for the storm to blow over is playing into Theresa May’s hands. Whilst Corbyn sits continuously on the fence between different variations of Brexit, will Labour’s momentum fizzle out?

 

Labour are at a crossroads where they can either keep waiting and risk their moment passing, or take their chance to actively oppose a hard Brexit or Brexit in general, thus risking their seats in Leave constituencies. The party is stuck between the two. But passively waiting for something to happen may very easily not go down well, neither among voters in the next election, nor among the historians who write the story of Labour’s apathetic response to the most significant political turning point of modern British history.

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