Brexit still needs Labour support, regardless of who wins the Tory leadership

Brexit still needs Labour support, regardless of who wins the Tory leadership

The two main political parties deserved the drubbing they received at the hands of the electorate at the European Parliament election. Labour should be grateful to have come third in the poll just above the Greens – they could have easily joined the Tories in fifth (and probably should have done).

The people want the politicians to get on with it and Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn could have got on with it when they met face-to-face a few days before polling day. That was the occasion for Corbyn, with Labour’s manifesto commitment to respect the result of the EU referendum in his pocket, to show statesmanlike leadership and agree a deal with the Prime Minister. After all, the Prime Minister agreed to almost everything for which Labour had asked. But he baulked. He walked away on the spurious grounds that Theresa May would not be able to deliver – a self-fulfilling prophecy, since delivering an agreed Tory-Labour compromise by definition requires Labour support which Corbyn was unwilling to promise. He may come to regret it.

Like a rifleman, forever waiting for the best view of the target as it moves in and out of view, never having the nerve to pull the trigger lest there may be a better opportunity, Corbyn had many opportunities to end the stalemate but chose not to.  

If Brexit were to unravel, the avowed aim of those who are pushing Labour to support a second referendum, the electorate would hold Corbyn responsible. He promised to respect the result of the referendum and he failed to deliver.

It was plain soon after the start of negotiations with the EU that the governing Conservative Party was incapable of uniting behind a single vision of Brexit: a small but significant number of Tory MPs have been prepared to commit political suicide rather than compromise on their fundamental beliefs and that, therefore, Brexit could only take place with support from Labour, formally or informally. This will continue to be the case, regardless of who is elected leader of the Tory Party.

By stating that Labour will support a public vote on a deal if a general election were out of the question, Corbyn is hoping to circumvent those who are calling for a ‘confirmatory vote’. Strictly speaking, a confirmatory vote is nothing exceptional. It has an honourable history, especially in the trade union movement where, invariably, the outcome of negotiations on, say, a pay claim between a trade union and an employer is put to members for ratification, and a vote rejecting the outcome of the negotiations does not mean abandoning the original claim. Rather, it means pressing for a better offer and that’s what Corbyn meant when he said ‘let the people decide the country’s future, either in a general election or through a public vote on any deal agreed by Parliament’.

Unlike Keir Starmer and Tom Watson, Corbyn is adhering to the strict wording of the resolution on Brexit as agreed at the Labour Party Conference last year, namely: ‘If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote’. There is no mention here of Remain as an option in any future public vote. But for those who wish to reverse the Brexit vote, the confirmatory vote they are pushing for is not on the deal but on Brexit itself, hence the phrase ‘with Remain as an option’ is appended to their confirmatory vote proposal in an attempt to equate rejecting a particular deal with rejecting Brexit – a sleight of hand that has not gone unnoticed by Labour Party members.

They are trying to bounce the Labour Party into changing its Brexit policy now rather than waiting for the party’s decision-making conference in September – not a sign of confidence of the overwhelming support among party members they claim to have.

When a new Prime Minister takes over and Parliament returns in earnest, MPs will be back to the starting blocks, ready for a second lap of the obstacle course that is Brexit; the same route with the same participants. History may repeat itself, as Karl Marx once wrote, the first time as a tragedy, the second as farce – but it need not be.

Having been through the first lap, the participants will have gained an insight of the terrain, the obstacles and the pitfalls along the way. They will be more informed of what is realistic and possible and what is not; they will be wiser as to the nature of Brexit and that is there is no such thing as a Tory Brexit, a Labour Brexit or for that matter, a People’s Brexit; they will be aware that Brexit is a process and above all that treaties are not written in stone – a sovereign nation can negotiate or unilaterally leave a treaty if it deemed it contrary to its national interest – and that Brexit is not an end but a beginning.