Three hard questions (and an easy one) for Labour about their Brexit policy

Three hard questions (and an easy one) for Labour about their Brexit policy

In the current general election campaign, Brexit is a key issue. Labour’s Brexit policy appears to be as follows:

  1. Negotiate a new ‘sensible’ deal with the EU within three months of being elected;
  2. Hold a ‘final say’ (i.e. second) referendum within six months of being elected, with ‘Remain’ and the new deal on the ballot paper;
  3. Implement whatever the people decide.

But first, to do all this, Labour will have to request an extension to Article 50. How long will be needed?

The second referendum is promised within six months – that would be by 12th June 2020. But time would be needed after the result before actually leaving – to get the legislation (either a withdrawal agreement or a revocation of Article 50) through Parliament and to give government, people and businesses time to prepare. In addition, almost everyone regards Labour’s timeline as unrealistic. So they will probably ask for a ‘flextension’ up to at least September 2020.

That was the easy question.

The first hard question: What if the EU don’t agree to an extension?

Labour will doubtless insist that EU leaders have assured them in discussions that they will back an extension. However, any extension requires agreement from all 27 non-UK member states. Any one of them can veto. Having extended three times and already negotiated two agreements with the UK, it is surely not unthinkable that at least one EU country (France maybe?) might say Non to any further significant extension?

Labour should say what it will do if this happens. There appear to be only three options:

  1. Leave without a deal
  2. Revoke Article 50 (without a referendum, as there won’t be time to hold one)
  3. Sign up to Boris Johnson’s deal (the only deal currently on the table)

All these options look deeply unattractive for the Labour Party. It has set its face firmly against No Deal at all costs – this is surely an impossible option for them. A Bill to revoke Article 50 without a referendum would risk a party split and a massive backlash from Leave voters. In any event, it might not get through Parliament (many Labour MPs would vote against, although the Lib Dems would presumably support it). Accepting Boris’s deal (and having to push the associated legislation through Parliament) would be hugely embarrassing, but this would seem the only viable option for them if an extension is refused.

Labour should be asked to tell the voters exactly what it would do in this situation. It may not be a likely scenario, but it’s nevertheless a real possibility. What is their Plan B here?

The second hard question: What if the EU won’t offer a decent deal?

And why should they? The EU’s preference is for the UK to Remain. They have an incentive to make the terms of leaving as unattractive as possible.

Boris was seen (despite the Benn Act) to have a credible threat of being prepared to leave without a deal. Even with Theresa May, the EU knew that No Deal was a possibility if they pushed too far. But Labour has repeatedly rejected No Deal in absolute terms, insisting that it must be taken off the table. Hence it will have zero leverage in the negotiations.

Again, Labour will doubtless insist that they have discussed and agreed an outline of a future deal with EU leaders. But that’s a long way from an actual deal and the devil will be in the detail.

So what happens if the EU plays hardball and makes onerous and politically unacceptable demands? Is there any point at which Labour will walk away from the talks? It’s hard to see how they can, as this would lead eventually to a no-deal Brexit. They have said they will put the best deal they can negotiate on the ballot paper against Remain – but that would imply that they first agree the deal with the EU. Will they agree to a patently unattractive deal and then put it to a referendum (and presumably campaign against it) if they can’t get anything better within three months? This is a feasible scenario and, again, Labour should tell voters how they will handle it.

The third hard question: Why not include Boris’s deal in the referendum?

Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly said he will offer a choice between Remain and a ‘credible deal’. Labour can criticise Boris’s deal as much as they like but, however much they dislike it, they cannot claim that it’s not credible. It’s been accepted by the EU and also, in principle, by the UK Parliament. By any objective standard, it has high credibility.

So if Labour’s deal will be on the ballot, why not this one too? Labour will of course claim that their new deal is very different from Boris’s deal, and offers a real alternative. Fine, then why not give people the choice between both ‘credible’ deals?

These are reasonable questions and voters are entitled to clear answers before they cast their ballots. Labour should be pressed hard during the election campaign on all three.