Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
Everyone is so used to knocking Theresa May and the Government that we sometimes forget the Labour party have any agency at all in the ongoing Brexit dramas.
When I mentioned in a recent BBC interview, that Labour MPs, as well as Conservatives, had some responsibility for making decisions on Brexit, the presenter looked at me with disbelief. Yet Labour voted for a referendum in 2015, promised to respect the result in 2016, whipped MPs to trigger Article 50 in March 2017, and then pledged to deliver Brexit in the June 2017 General Election.
At one level, Labour’s Brexit strategy has been remarkably effective. They have an impossible split within their own party. Their electoral logic requires them both to win Leave-voting seats, and also hold Remain seats, while managing an activist base and parliamentary party which is very Remain.
They have bridged this divide through ambiguity. In 2017’s General Election they managed to promise all things to many people, and their vote share went up as a result. It’s possible that the emergence of The Independent Group will challenge this over the next few months, particularly if we head towards a new election, but it’s too soon to tell.
Is this all part of Labour’s cunning plan? Some observers are sceptical about how deliberate their policy decisions have been. The profound tensions in the Brexit beliefs between, say, Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn, is also a crucial factor. The Shadow Brexit Secretary has been nudging the party towards ever softer positions – first a customs union, then a second referendum, perhaps the single market (or Common Market 2.0) next.
But will the Labour party actually carry through on any of these promises? The Leader of the Opposition’s team and Len McCluskey, a key union figure, are extremely critical of the possibility of a second referendum.
Corbyn noticeably ‘forgot’ to mention a second referendum at all during his Point of Order on Tuesday 12 March, after the second meaningful vote defeat. It’s also been left out of other key communications, despite the party suggesting that their policy had switched totally to backing a referendum. Corbyn still prefers calling for a General Election. Sometimes he elides the two calling for a “People’s Vote” through an election, insisting of course that all options are on the table.
Overall, it’s often seemed that the Labour party leadership are just MIA. Some of the biggest ‘moments’ in Brexit have come from debates or rows within the Conservative Party, exacerbating the impression that this is all just a Tory issue. Equally, it has sometimes been Labour backbenchers, such as Yvette Cooper or Hilary Benn, who have seemed to do more to shape the process than many in the shadow cabinet.
If you apply almost any scrutiny to Labour’s position on Brexit, it rapidly disintegrates. They seem to have abandoned their absurd test that any Brexit deal had to deliver the “exact same benefits” as membership. That was rightly described by the Shadow Trade Secretary as “bollocks”. But their current position is hardly more coherent:
- Labour say “we are not supporting Theresa May’s deal at all”, but admit that they have no issue with any part of the legally-binding deal – the Withdrawal Agreement;
- Labour complain of a “blindfold Brexit” when it was the EU, not the UK, that insisted our future relationship couldn’t be negotiated during Article 50;
- Labour call for the Prime Minister to relax her “red lines”, when this would make no difference at all to the divorce deal which MPs are actually voting on;
- Labour demand a second referendum but whipped their MPs to abstain on the question just last week;
- Labour insist that the question of a second referendum must include “credible” remain and leave choices, but Jeremy Corbyn refuses to say which way he would vote in one because it “depends what the choice is”;
- Labour call for cross-party talks and “reaching out” to find a consensus but Jeremy Corbyn stormed out of a meeting on Wednesday because Chuka Umunna of The Independent Group was present;
- Labour call for a “customs union, market access and protection of rights”, but all of those things are provided for in the current deal via the backstop, and possible under the current Political Declaration;
- Labour demand a customs union with a “say” over trade policy, but the EU has ruled this out for now and this would anyway form part of negotiations that cannot begin until after we have left;
- Labour don’t want harmonisation on state aid or competition rules, but the EU would surely make these a requirement of any customs union;
- Labour demand “dynamic alignment” on employment and environmental rules but then admit that they could match or exceed future EU standards “in any event”.
- Labour call for a general election, but can’t say what their Brexit policy would be if one was called.
It’s quite clear that Labour’s plan involves being seen to neither aid nor obstruct Brexit. Other than promising a “job’s first Brexit” or “Labour’s Brexit deal” there’s painfully little detail. While Starmer is clearly knowledgeable, Corbyn can seem confused, muddling the Single Market and the Customs Union, as he showed in his interview with Sophy Ridge last Sunday.
The one clear policy shared by virtually all the Labour party is a profound opposition to No Deal. On almost everything else there’s a fair bit of confusion. Some Labour MPs desperately want to reverse the 2016 referendum result and are passionate “People’s Vote” advocates.
But there are many others who genuinely oppose a second referendum while seeking a softer Brexit. This group ought to find a way to support the current Brexit deal. The divorce deal leaves open for the future all possible relationships with the EU from something as distant as Canada’s to a deal closer than Norway’s. The only proviso is that both sides must find a solution to the Irish border question.
Ultimately a danger for the Conservatives could come if Labour came together around a slightly softer version of May’s deal (say the deal with a customs union amended on top). If that then passes the Commons with Labour support, and resolves the Brexit impasse, the public just might get the impression that Labour – despite all its divisions, inconsistencies and problems – is willing to act in the national interest to avert a crisis.
They might therefore conclude that however much they may distrust Corbyn and however divided Labour might be, the Conservatives offer no better answers. That should cause Tory MPs to reflect very carefully before rejecting the Prime Minister’s deal for a third time.