29 November 2018

Labour’s Brexit policy: impregnable delusion or fathomless cynicism?


Should you have ever wished for a demonstration of the pitiful shambles into which British politics has, at least for the time being and the foreseeable future, descended you could do no better than examine the absurdity of the proposal that Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn “debate” one another on television next month.

The Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition are each believed to be, as they say, “up” for this but, because this is a debate about Brexit, an agreement does not necessarily preface a deal. At the time of writing, something both parties wished to see happen was not at all certain to happen. The Conservative party would prefer the debate to be transmitted by the BBC so, naturally, the Labour party would prefer it to be shown by ITV. Upon such pinheads do angels perish these days.

This footling dispute at least diverted attention from some rather more pressing questions: what would May and Corbyn be debating and why? Notionally, they would be arguing over the withdrawal agreement painfully negotiated with the European Union. As such this would, in theory, be a teachable moment for British voters, the vast majority of whom have only the vaguest understanding of the details of that putative agreement. In that, the public is at most only a step or two behind a considerable number, and perhaps even a majority, of our elected representatives.

But since the “meaningful vote” scheduled for the House of Commons next month is not a public vote — this is not, at least not yet, “I’m A Brexiteer: Get Me Out of Here” and nor is it even, technically speaking, “Strictly Brexit” — the purpose of this confrontation remains elusive.

Notionally, I suppose this debate would be a particularly mirthless episode of “Deal or No Deal” in as much as the Prime Minister has a natural and proprietorial interest in selling her agreement and the leader of the opposition has an equally natural interest in rejecting it. Those are the rules of engagement in our adversarial system.

Of course, Labour’s preference for No Deal should not be understood as a preference for No Deal. You might think that obvious but if so you lack the imagination to appreciate the subtlety of Labour’s position. The opposition is against this deal but very much in favour of another deal albeit one that is largely secret and for which there is, in any case, little window of opportunity.

It continues to escape Jeremy Corbyn that no deal is the default position. Last weekend he suggested there was ample time during the transition period to negotiate a better deal, seemingly forgetting that in the absence of an agreement there is no transition period at all. Once again: a deal is the entry qualification for a transition period. Corbyn, though, is the kind of eternal optimist who, armed with CCC at A-Level thinks he can be accepted for a university course whose requirements are AAA. (In actual fact, Jeremy Corbyn got EE in his A-Levels.)

Meanwhile, the clock ticks on bringing us closer every day to the kind of cliff-edge Brexit most people have generally thought something it would be best to avoid. The Bank of England’s worst-case forecasts for post-Brexit life — the worst recession since the 1930s! — are based on what Mark Carney considers a most improbable outcome and yet, as the days tick by, the likelihood of precisely that kind of outcome grows and grows.

It is not, in fact, easy to determine whether Labour’s positions are built on impregnable delusion or, instead, fathomless cynicism. Of these, extraordinary as it may seem, the latter might yet be preferable. The party claims to want all the benefits of the status quo without any of the disadvantages, a view of such startling naivete it is hard to credit it can be held with any real conviction. And yet, perhaps it is. Confronted by the idea of a “Norway for now” option, a Labour spokesman told The Times’s Sam Coates that “the Norway option doesn’t work for Britain” because “anything that’s a replica of existing rules and regulations” is unacceptable. Well, good luck persuading the Europeans to accept that.

Indeed, lost in the understandable dismay with which Mrs May’s admittedly sub-optimal agreement has been greeted is any great appreciation that plenty of European governments worry is it already too generous to the United Kingdom. That being so, the prospects for negotiating a “better” agreement seem on the emaciated side of slim.

But what if we enjoyed the opportunity to reconsider the whole damn shooting match? If the politicians cannot agree on anything, let alone a way forward, why not throw the question back to the people whose bloody fault is is in the first place: the great British electorate?

It is a tempting notion until such time as you begin to ponder how such a referendum might work. How many options should be on the ballot? Deal or No Deal? Deal, No Deal, Better Deal? Deal, No Deal, Better Deal, Remain? Deal, No Deal, Better Deal, Remain, For-the-love-of-god-just-give-us-peace? And when — and how — in any case would or could such a plebiscite be held?

Here again, Labour’s position is, to be charitable, opaque. John McDonnell has been quietly cosying up to the People’s Vote champions for some time but his manoeuvres are strictly unofficial. The dear leader is not for turning or, at least, not for turning yet.

“If we can’t get a deal, yes a general election” McDonnell says, though by the time an election were held — even assuming such a thing could be orchestrated — No Deal would be all but upon us, rendering the purpose of the election something close to moot. But, hark, “if we can’t get an election all the options are on the table and that includes a People’s Vote”. That, clearly, is Labour’s reserve policy, to be thrown onto the pitch when all other options have been tried and failed.

If this is an advertisement for a Labour government it is one that no prudent customer could possibly think sensible or a bargain worth striking. This is an opposition barely worthy of being in opposition, let alone one ready for the responsibilities of power.

Labour’s idealised Brexit is the kind of Brexit that is so impossible it is tempting to assume it has been built to fail, the better to allow for the kind of crisis that might yet put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. As a matter of low political calculation, there may be something to be said for this but it is not the kind of leadership the country quite clearly desires. In comparison with Labour’s cynicism, the prime minister’s own heavy-footed blundering begins to seem both transparent and, indeed, almost charming.

Still, few things could better suit the current mood than a televised debate between two politicians, one a Remainer pretending to be a Leaver and the other a Leaver pretending to be a Remainer, neither of whom have a plan that can command a majority in the House of Commons far less generate some enthusiasm amongst the people as a whole.

And to think that the withdrawal agreement is supposed to be the easy bit. The actual negotiations with the EU over future arrangements will be another story altogether. That’s certainly something to look forward to.

Alex Massie is a political commentator.