The public expect May and Corbyn to strike a deal that delivers Brexit

The public expect May and Corbyn to strike a deal that delivers Brexit

The pre-emptive strike by Keir Starmer insisting that a confirmatory public vote must be part of any deal with the Government stems from deep-seated weakness rather than strength; it is a sure sign of panic on the part of those intent on reversing the vote to leave the EU.

His claim that up to 150 Labour MPs would refuse to vote for a deal, any deal, if it doesn’t include a confirmatory vote is as unfounded as Tom Watson’s proclaiming that the Labour’s EU election manifesto will commit to a people’s vote. Both are attempts to bounce Labour into a Brexit policy contrary to that agreed at the last Labour Party Conference; Starmer’s attempt will no doubt meet the same fate as Watson’s.

It is worth reminding those who are thinking of flirting with Starmer’s latest depiction of what Labour’s Brexit policy is of what Labour’s conference resolution actually said. The relevant part states:

Should Parliament vote down a Tory Brexit deal or the talks end in no-deal, Conference believes this would constitute a loss of confidence in the Government. In these circumstances, the best outcome for the country is an immediate General Election that can sweep the Tories from power. If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.

It is axiomatic therefore, that if there was an agreement between the Government and Labour on a deal to put to Parliament, then that deal would not be a ‘Tory Brexit deal’ and therefore the option of a public vote would not arise. This explains Starmer’s procrastination throughout the talks, complaining of red lines and the failure of the Government to compromise without a single hint of what Labour is prepared to compromise on in return.

Originally, Labour’s policy of a customs union was regarded as the lever to scupper the talks between the Government and the Opposition. While the Government is right to reject membership of the EU’s own customs union, forming a customs union is an entirely different creature. Remaining in the customs union would tie the UK to the EU’s trade policies without any meaningful say in the formulation of these policies. A customs union, on the other hand, is a trade and tariff arrangement between two sovereign bodies, the United Kingdom and the European Union – an arrangement between equals. Neither side can impose its policies on the other; neither side is predominant.

In a customs union, decisions on trade are mutually agreed. There is as much likelihood of the EU imposing its preferred policies on Britain as the UK imposing its preferred policies on the EU. And there is no such thing as a permanent customs union; all customs unions are temporary and once one side finds its interests are undermined by its participation in a customs union, it can and does have the right to withdraw from it.

Having failed to make the issue of a customs union a sticking point in negotiations – after all, some sort of customs arrangement is implicit in the Withdrawal Agreement and the agreed political declaration – Starmer and the hard-wired Remainers in the Shadow Cabinet, in a last desperate attempt to halt Brexit, invented a non-existing condition for an agreement, a confirmatory vote.

Irrespective of the pessimism from Starmer and his Remainer colleagues about the chances of a deal with the Tory Government – a pessimism quickly picked up by a media eager to inflate differences and heighten the political tension – the talks are heading towards a positive outcome.

Following a face-to-face meeting between the two party leaders with only their respective Chief Whips present, a Labour spokesperson explained that Corbyn ‘set out the Shadow Cabinet’s concerns about the Prime Minister’s ability to deliver on any compromise agreement’. There was no mention of a customs union, let alone a confirmatory vote. A text has obviously been agreed, the only concern is delivery – especially since Theresa May would not be there to oversee it. But Labour cannot afford to be too purist about this.

There is pressure on both party leaders to abandon the talks on the grounds that they will taint their respective image in the eyes of the electorate, as if the public is too stupid to understand the necessity for an agreement if Brexit is to be delivered. Once a deal is done, normal hostilities will resume on domestic and international issues. Warnings from both Labour and Conservative MPs of splits are self-serving and highly exaggerated. MPs should be more concerned about the rupture with the electorate than ruptures within their own parties if Parliament fails to deliver on the result of the EU referendum.

As we approach the circus that is the EU elections, it falls for the two party leaders, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, to shift the talks forward towards an agreed Brexit deal. The public demands it. History would not look kindly at either if they fail.