Whilst the internal battle waging in the Conservative Party over Brexit is making all the headlines at the moment, the struggle in the Labour Party should not be overlooked.
It’s unusual because it cuts across the usual split in the Opposition, which is between the leadership and membership on the one hand and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on the other.
On Brexit, however, the membership is much more in tune with Labour’s overwhelmingly Europhile MPs. This means that whilst those around Jeremy Corbyn might want Brexit – and it’s clear many of them do, not least because it will end a lot of legal restrictions on a hard-left economic programme – they can’t say so openly.
The result has been a campaign of misdirection and procrastination, chronicled so well by Tim Shipman in All Out War, and waged so effectively during the campaign that our editor named Seumas Milne as ‘The Sixth Person who Made Brexit Happen’.
As March 29th looms and the battle for Brexit enters its final stages, Corbyn is coming under mounting pressure to endorse a second referendum. John McDonnell, his close ally and the more adept politician of the pair, has been signalling a willingness to rethink.
But the Labour leader has good reason to hesitate, and not just because he might personally support Brexit. There is also the fact that any clarification of Labour’s Brexit position risks undercutting its electoral coalition just before a snap general election which would almost certainly have to precede any re-run of the referendum.
Yes, a majority of Labour voters back Remain. But a substantial portion are not, and one of the few bright points for the Tories in the 2017 election was the emerging evidence that Labour-inclined Leave voters can be persuaded to vote for the Conservatives as ‘the party of Brexit’.
Until now, Labour has been luxuriating in the ability, as the opposition, to avoid having to be precise about what its Brexit position is. This was made plain earlier this week in Channel 4’s TV debate, when James Cleverly skewered Barry Gardiner over the latter’s contradictory, almost utopian account of how the negotiations on the future relationship would go if only Jeremy Corbyn, and not Theresa May, were pressing the flesh in Brussels and Salzburg.
The evidence suggests that Corbyn’s strategy, which is perfectly sensible if somewhat cynical, is simply to allow Brexit to happen without having to dirty his hands in the process. If this is the case then the Prime Minister’s “run out the clock” strategy – playing for time until the only options are her deal or none – actually suits him. By avoiding a reckoning on the Withdrawal Agreement the Government has postponed the hard questions about what to do next, both for themselves and for him.
All this might explain why the Labour leader is proving so reluctant to table a vote of no confidence. It’s true that at present Labour would lose it – the Democratic Unionists look set to vote with the Government unless the deal passes – but unlike the Conservatives’ internal rules there’s nothing to stop the Opposition (or any other party) tabling another one, and then another. James Callaghan’s administration fought of several before famously succumbing in 1979.
But if a vote of no confidence failed then Labour’s current line, that they want a general election first and foremost, would be weakened. “You can’t secure an election”, their activists could rightly point out, “so what now?”.