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It’s make-your-mind-up-time on Brexit. But is Labour capable of it?

After nearly three years of Brexit, and on the even of the meaningful vote, we still don’t know what Labour opposition’s policy is on the most important issue facing the UK in half a century.  Is Labour a pro-Brexit party, as it’s leadership clearly believe, and its conference resolutions confirm.  Or is it a Remain party, as the vast majority of its membership, including most MPs and the young activists around Momentum, seem to wish?   Dunno mate.  None of the above?
Some in the party could only be described as militantly agnostic.   It’s not Jeremy’s fault, they say,  that the PM has presented parliament with a broken-backed deal that is, in Corbyn’s words, “the worst of all worlds”. The Corbynator would’ve tough-talked Brussels into agreeing a bespoke customs union, plus privileged access to the European Single Market without any obligation to accept freedom of movement or state aid rules.
The sooner we get a general election, the sooner he can get the job done. Except of course there’ll be no General Election and even if there were,Jeremy Corbyn, has about as much chance of finding a better deal in Brussels as the police have in finding drones over Gatwick, or Chris Grayling a channel ferry operator that actually has ferries
In the past week, there has been some revived interest in the Norway Plus option, with the activist’s activist, Owen Jones, writting in the Guardian that joining the European Economic Area would be “the least worst option”.   It’s somewhat ironic that he was publicly barracked outside parliament by Brexit supporters last week when he also supports leaving the European Union.
However, Jeremy Corbyn has always opposed the idea of Britain rejoining the European Free Trade Area and thus the EEA, on the grounds that it would involve membership of the single market, freedom of movement, and Britain becoming a “rule taker”.   Last year, he whipped Labour MPs against supporting a proposal for the EEA just to be debated in parliament.
Corbyn also opposes a repeat referendum, though Labour’s conference resolution does contemplate it as a last resort.  All Labour’s efforts are to go into forcing an early general election, which will never happen because Tory MPs and the DUP will defeat Labour’s confidence motion – if it ever gets round to tabling it.
Labour has not been moved by this week’s assurances from Theresa May that she will protect workers rights and the environment if only Labour would support her Withdrawal Deal.  Such promises would mean absolutely nothing, unless they were written into the legally-binding treaty, and Mrs May is not going to do that.  By Tuesday, she may also be hinting at accepting Labour’s call for a permanent customs union after Brexit.  She could say she will support it in the negotiations over Britain’s future trading relations.  But I still can’t see Labour accepting Tory assurances on anything, especially since Theresa May is not going to be around much longer.
But will Labour call for a repeat referendum, thus antagonising all those pro-Leave Labour voters?  It would be a shock.   They support Brexit, but not any Brexit that is on offer – which suggests that they might end up abstaining – if not on Tuesday, then when Theresa May comes back to parliament with her final, final revised offer.
Let’s be absolutely clear: abstaining on Brexit, the most important issue facing the UK since the Second World War, would not just be an abdication of opposition – it would be a betrayal, a craven capitulation, for which Labour would never be forgiven. Abstention would mean handing the future of the UK to the hardline Brexiteers who have been holding May and country to ransom for the last two years, despite representing a small minority in parliament. At the very least, Corbyn would be conniving in saving Theresa May’s discredited Withdrawal Deal, thus condemning the UK to a “botched” Brexit, which he described in November as “an act of national self-harm”.
The press would have a field day with headlines about “Labour’s Meaning-less Vote” over pictures of a bewildered-looking Corbyn in Parliament as Theresa May berates him for having no policy on Brexit after two-and-a-half years of attacking the Government “What is Labour for?”, commentators would ask, questioning Corbyn’s reason, leadership and his fitness to govern. But that would be nothing compared to the comments in Labour itself.
Abstention would risk splitting the party. The vast majority of Labour members oppose Brexit and want a referendum. This is an issue, uniquely, which unites the young left activists of Momentum with the old right Blairites of what used to be called New Labour. There would be mass resignations, with young members burning their party cards. Rebel Labour MPs, like Chuka Umunna, would likely join with the SNP, Liberal Democrat and Tory remainers, creating a new political coalition. The party could be split for years, decades even – like Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour after 1931.
Many in the Labour Party dearly wish that Jeremy Corbyn would come out firmly if belatedly for Remain, support a referendum and call for Article 50 to be delayed (or even revoked) in order to hold one.  But this is against party policy and violates his own ingrained euroscepticism.  Before Christmas he made clear that, even after a General Election, he would still lead Britain out of the European Union.  Read his lips: Labour is a pro-Brexit party.
The Labour leader says he voted Remain in 2016, but ever since the 1970s he has opposed the free market economics that underpin the 1957 Treaty of Rome that founded the EEC. Corbyn thinks the rules of the single market could make British socialism impossible. “I don’t want to be told by someone else,” he’s said, “that we can’t use state aid to develop industry in this country.” This is disputed by Labour supporters of the EU, but it is not in doubt that Brussels generally regards Government subsidies as anti-competitive.
Most of Labour’s General Election target seats are pro-leave constituencies. So, while the opinion polls may indicate that a majority of voters would now vote Remain, Labour could still lose the next General Election if it’s seen to block Brexit. Again, this electoral calculation is disputed. But clearly Corbyn is trying to keep his pro-European party on side while not alienating anti-European voters. Riding two horses is notoriously difficult owing to the tendency to fall off both of them.
But perhaps the main reason Corbyn might be tempted by abstention is the old political adage, attributed to Napoleon: “Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake.” Brexit will be a disaster for the Tories from day one, and then get steadily worse. So, why get in her way? Let Theresa May or her successor, implement her useless Withdrawal Deal, leave the EU as planned, and then allow Labour to benefit from the public backlash. Corbyn will have his general election without ever having to have a coherent policy on Brexit, which by then will anyway be a done deal.
This is a superficially attractive strategy but ultimately ruinous for Labour. First of all, this is not a battle, but a war. You DO interrupt your enemy if he (or she) is about to run all over you. By abstaining, and effectively allowing May’s deal to go ahead, Labour would be fatally implicated in the subsequent disaster. The public won’t forgive Corbyn for failing to seize the only opportunity to prevent Brexit. It’s unlikely he would survive the backlash that will afflict our entire political class .



About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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