Having pledged to respect the referendum result, Labour should at least abstain on May’s deal

Having pledged to respect the referendum result, Labour should at least abstain on May’s deal

Criticism of Jeremy Corbyn for refusing to meet with Theresa May unless No Deal is taken off the table is unwarranted and misplaced. I believe the threat of No Deal as a lever to force the EU to negotiate in good faith is long gone: that horse bolted when leaders of the SNP and the Lib Dems and assorted Remain hardliners trotted off to see Michel Barnier to tell him to stand firm and not give an inch in the hope that the British people will recant and beg forgiveness.

Today, MPs are falling over themselves to show the lengths they are prepared to to stop a no-deal exit. Hoping that No Deal, being the default position, will prevail if Parliament cannot agree a deal is in my view illusory; Parliament could, through emergency legislation change that. So when Corbyn asked for No Deal to be taken off the table, he was demanding nothing more than an acknowledgement of reality.

May had no choice but to offer talks with opposition party leaders and senior MPs once her deal went down with a thumping majority, but that does not mean there are other deals waiting in the wings to be signed off. Unless she is to make a complete volte-face on all her promises, the Prime Minister will come back with substantially the same Withdrawal Agreement and that’s why Corbyn was right to decline the offer of talks. The most the Government can do is make its guarantees of workers’ rights and the protection of the environment a legal requirement; there is no need for a meeting between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to do that.

The Remainers are in a panic, the sort of panic that grips a football team trailing 1-0 five minutes before the end of a knock-out competition; they throw everything they’ve got in a desperate attempt to move to extra time or secure a re-match while the other team sits back, stands firm, defends its goal and plays for time, throwing the ball into touch far up the pitch to waste precious seconds. Theresa May’s decision in December to defer the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement was a classic example of that. When she comes back with a re-vamped deal, there will be even less time for the Brexit wreckers to do their deed. Hence the attempt to wrestle control of the timetable and the procedures of the House of Commons away from the executive and into the hands of MPs, a case of the lunatics taking over the asylum with Bercow as Jack Nicholson.

Whatever the Prime Minister manages to squeeze out of the EU in terms of ‘assurances and clarification’ with respect to the backstop (and there won’t be anything substantial as long as the EU believes that their Remainer allies in Parliament could prevail), she will surely not placate the DUP or the ERG who will settle for nothing short of changing the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and removing the backstop. A majority for the deal can only be secured with Labour support. This is the reason for the huge pressure on the Labour leadership to abandon its policy of respecting the referendum result.

When we come to within touching distance of the departing date, a stark choice will face Parliament: support a Withdrawal Agreement in whatever shape it ends up or abandon the Brexit date of 29th March. This is where Corbyn has to make the intervention that many Labour Leave supporters have been calling on him to make: proclaim the primacy of the referendum result, declare that the people must not be cheated and their wish to leave the EU must be honoured, whip Labour MPs to abstain and promise to re-negotiate when in power. That is the only principled stand to take if the result of the referendum is to be respected – as Corbyn has repeatedly stated and the 2017 Labour election manifesto categorically promised.

The fear that the UK would be stuck inside a customs union with the EU in perpetuity as a result of the backstop is, I believe, unfounded. The terms of any international treaty reflect the relative strength of the parties involved at the time. Once we leave, the EU will be weakened (if only because of the loss of its second biggest economy) and we will be strengthened ┬áby virtue of our independence from the institution we are currently trying to leave which gives us powers that only a sovereign nation has. The day after we leave, treaties that we have signed with the EU become treaties between equals and as a sovereign state we have the right to re-negotiate or unilaterally withdraw from these treaties regardless of whether such treaties have escape clauses or not. No lesser grandee than the former Governor of the Bank of England agrees. In an article in The Sun newspaper, Mervyn King wrote: “If this deal is not abandoned, I believe the UK will end up repealing it unilaterally”.

As far as the EU is concerned, the purpose of the Article 50 negotiations was to prevent the UK from leaving: the Withdrawal Agreement was designed to cause such divisions among MPs as to make leaving impossible and it succeeded with the help of not just Remain-supporting MPs but unfortunately Brexit-supporting MPs; as such, voting against the Withdrawal Agreement played right into the hands of the EU. This is why Barnier was applauded by members of the European Parliament soon after the deal was heavily defeated by the House of Commons. When the Withdrawal Agreement comes back to Parliament, Brexiteers should outmanoeuvre the EU and vote in favour to ensure our departure in March this year.