Tom McLaren is a Conservative Councillor for Brentwood Borough Council, and number 4 on the Conservative Party list for the Eastern Region in the upcoming European Elections.
I once sat down with a new British citizen who was considering her first ever vote, and helped her look through the available options.
In the interests of fairness we looked at all the parties on offer in alphabetical order, and I quickly found myself having to carefully explain why “acting in the national interest” didn’t necessarily mean what she thought it did when it came from the BNP. Believing party manifestos is a dangerous game.
Nonetheless, on the single key issue of the upcoming European elections, we should expect our main political parties to deliver a straightforward, deliverable, commitment – either leaving the European Union (Conservatives), or overturning the referendum result (Liberal Democrats). And indeed each party has very clearly set out their stall on this key issue – all, that is, except Labour.
Labour’s standard position on Brexit, particularly on the chances of a Peoples Vote, has typically depended on what day of the week it was and who you were asking. Indeed, just this week Keir Starmer and Tom Watson have made contradictory statements, the former seeking a “confirmatory referendum” under any circumstances, the latter seemingly ruling it out in certain circumstances. Bizarrely, this chimeric policy of being all things to all people seems to have worked to date.
Of course, any such “positioning” can only last so long, as eventually a party has to put their policy into words via a manifesto, and it would seem fortunate then that Labour has indeed published a Euro manifesto to which we can refer. Yet even here they have attempted to fudge the issue, with a choice of words that tries offer something to everyone.
Labour’s manifesto says that they oppose the negotiated withdrawal agreement, oppose no deal, and will push for their own deal (whatever that means) or a general election. Should none of that be possible, they will back a second referendum. With me so far?
The implication of this is that a second referendum is a last option, and Leavers are safe in voting Labour. The truth, however, falls some way short of their mealy-mouthed manifesto promises. Let me explain.
As confirmed in the manifesto, Labour opposes both the Withdrawal Agreement and no deal. In addition, and despite the Prime Ministers efforts, it seems likely that The House of Commons will not support any kind of “Labour deal”, either as a cross-party amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement or as some kind of “customs union lite”. This leaves Jeremy Corbyn pushing for a general election, with a second referendum as a fallback position.
Let’s imagine that, with the momentum they generate by finishing second in the European elections, Labour not only get their general election but manage to win it. The EU will be rubbing their hands at that prospect, as Labour’s compromised position on Brexit will give the EU very little incentive to negotiate a new or revised withdrawal agreement. Coming into these new talks Michel Barnier will know that the harder the negotiations, the higher the probability that Labour’s fallback position of a new vote will become a reality. The talks will be short and robust, with the terms on offer so unpalatable that a second referendum will be almost certain.
Of course, in the situation where Labour get their general election and lose, then their position must logically shift to backing a new referendum, whilst a minority Labour government would see a deal with the SNP, and their almost fanatical belief in making people voting until they get the answer they want.
Of course, taking the Labour Party’s manifesto at its word with regards to Brexit is a dangerous game – even more so when those words are specifically designed to try and hold together a fragile truce between two sides of the party with little regard for the national interest. One thing is, however clear: no matter the outcome of the current negotiations between the Conservatives and Labour, or indeed the European elections, the probability of a second referendum under Labour is greatly undervalued.
In attempting to straddle both sides of the argument, their ill-advised policy fudge has clearly and significantly increased the probability of a “People’s Vote”, and served to highlight the fact that there is only one party which has both the ability and the desire to deliver Brexit – the Conservative Party.