Labour MPs should be careful to avoid a Brexit general election at which the party would be trounced

Labour MPs should be careful to avoid a Brexit general election at which the party would be trounced

“As democrats, Labour accepted the result of the 2016 referendum.” So wrote Jeremy Corbyn in a letter to Labour Party members following the recent meeting of the Shadow Cabinet which spent a considerable time discussing Labour’s developing policy on Brexit.

Accepting the outcome of the referendum, is, of course, not the same as agreeing with it; if it was, Labour would have welcomed the referendum result and not just respected it. Tom Watson is right, Labour is a Remain party. The party campaigned for Remain in the EU referendum, the vast majority of its MPs voted Remain and its membership to a large extent supported staying in the EU. By accepting the result of the referendum, Labour is committing itself not so much to ditch its support for Remain as to not sabotage Brexit.

But Labour’s policy on Brexit remains contradictory. The corollary of accepting the result of the referendum is that there will not be a second referendum to reverse it. However, agreeing to put a Tory deal ‘that does not respect the economy and jobs’ to a public vote with staying in the EU as an option on the ballot paper effectively does that – attempts to reverse the Brexit vote.

Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to reach a compromise with Theresa May to get Brexit over the line emboldened the Remainers in his party. Tom Watson and Emily Thornberry are pushing for a referendum on any deal, regardless of its merits; they have gone so far as to suggest that even if a general election is called and Labour came to power and were able to negotiate its own deal to leave the EU, such a deal should be put to a public vote with Remain as an option and with Labour campaigning for that very option. Labour would thus be negotiating in bad faith, for if Labour were to campaign against its own deal in favour of Remain, then surely, the worse the deal is, the better the chances of winning support for Remain. It goes to show how disingenuous hard-line Remainers are and how far they are prepared to go to scupper Brexit.

Labour members who demand their party go all out to stop Brexit should reflect a while. In the same way as they expect their democratically-elected representatives to carry out their wishes, the British people expect Members of Parliament, their democratically-elected representatives, to obey their wishes as expressed in the referendum – and the people’s decision in a public vote overrides those of any internal party vote.

Boris Johnson’s ‘do or die’ promise may make a good soundbite, but Brexit is not Custer’s last stand; Brexit is not a one-off event; it is the beginning of a process and not an end result. The argument that any compromise on the terms of our departure will tie our hands forever is groundless. Unlike the Ten Commandments, treaties between two sovereign entities are not written on tablets of stone; they can be revised, renegotiated and even unilaterally withdrawn from if one signatory to the treaty finds it incompatible with its national interest. But first we must become sovereign.

I expect the new Prime Minister to come back to Parliament with some sort of a deal – negotiators invariably do – which may or may not be similar to Theresa May’s. The hype that a Johnson administration will inevitably lead to a no-deal departure has no substance. Boris Johnson voted for Theresa May’s deal the last time it came in front of Parliament, as did Jacob Rees-Mogg and other leading Conservative Brexiteers. Similarly with the threat of proroguing Parliament, it is a red herring.

But, to get through the House of Commons, a deal will need Labour support; it’s highly unlikely that the Tories can hold the line and get all their MPs as well as the DUP to vote as one on any Brexit issue, let alone a final deal. Although Jeremy Corbyn has left the door open for Labour to support a deal in Parliament, that looks unlikely given the strength of the anti-Brexit lobby within Labour. The fate of Brexit thus rests with those Labour MPs who recognise the dangers of Brexit dragging on.

The most likely scenario following Parliament failing to support a deal is a snap general election – a Brexit general election. In one single manoeuvre, the Government would pull the rug from under both Labour and the Brexit Party. The latter, whose rallying cry is ‘implement Brexit’ would be muted as the Tories would have a plan to do just that. If Labour went for Remain, it would be virtually indistinguishable from the revived Liberal Democrats and haemorrhage votes in the very constituencies that Labour is supposed to win votes. And if Labour went for respecting the 2016 referendum result but promising to negotiate its own deal, it would be seen as pie in the sky, chasing rainbows – the promise of an imaginary deal when there is a real one on offer would have little appeal. The prospect of more delay, years of uncertainty and chaos is not a vote winner; Labour would be trounced.

Opportunities to get Brexit over and done with have been wasted by MPs’ timidity, short-term perspective and tribal adherences. But lessons have been learned, not least by Labour MPs. In a recent letter to Jeremy Corbyn, 26 Labour MPs (most of whom voted Remain in the 2016 referendum) urged the party to ensure Brexit happens: ‘A commitment to a second referendum would be toxic,’ they wrote. ‘The UK must leave, and do so without further undue delay’.

As we approach Labour’s annual conference in September, the pressure on Corbyn will intensify. So far he has managed to block, deflect or avert turning Labour into an anti-Brexit party; but his influence is waning and the Remainers are on the front foot. It’s time for Corbyn to level with party members: Labour’s plans for economic regeneration, nationalisation and state aid cannot be implemented in any meaningful way while the UK remains inside the EU.