25 March 2019

The specious stance of Labour’s soft Brexiteers


These days, even we vanishingly few supporters of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal must caveat our position with dismay towards her political conduct.

This dynamic — that her leadership is now even more toxic than her deal — must surely spell near fatal danger in the coming days and weeks. It is difficult too to argue she has anyone other than herself to blame. True, in the final reckoning there will certainly be walk-on parts for Geoffrey Cox’s butchering of a more substantive backstop compromise and John Bercow, whose absurd intervention last week restored vigour to wavering no-deal wreckers. Yet in the rear view mirror it will surely be her astonishingly tone deaf speech on the steps of Downing Street last Wednesday that will be seen as having finally scuttled both her Premiership and the deal.

The sheer self-harm of it all was underlined a day later in an article by Lisa Nandy, the Wigan MP who had been building a parliamentary bridge for Labour MPs in leave constituencies to cross the floor and back the deal. Nandy is one of Westminster’s more collegiate and even-tempered MPs,  therefore the venom in her conclusion should send shivers down the Prime Ministerial spine.

Writing in the Guardian, she eviscerated any hope the PM might harbour for progress: “she is not fit to be prime minister, does not deserve the support of MPs, and she will not get it”. And this from one of the very few Labour MPs the Government whips were likely counting on.

Still, whilst it is easy to sympathise with such emotions, the question of the Prime Minister’s character is, remarkably, a side issue whilst the threat of a no deal Brexit remains real. And the bad news for Nandy, as indeed for all soft Brexiteers, is that their position is a total chimera. For as Brexit stumbles towards the denouement of its first act, the truth is there are now only three viable positions. There is stopping Brexit altogether, with or even without a democratic vote. There is leaving the EU without a deal. And there is the Prime Minister’s deal.

If this seems blithely dismissive of the panoply of customs, trade and sovereignty positions often labelled ‘soft brexit’ then this is no accident. For one of the most bizarre aspects of the whole Brexit imbroglio has been witnessing lawmakers vote against legislation they support for the lack of the right non-legally binding side order.

On and on the arguments go — customs union this, single market that — and not a shred of difference do any of them make to the legal process of leaving the EU that must then follow. This simply cannot be stressed enough: whether you want a Norway like arrangement, or prefer a ‘Canada plus’ trade deal, the deal Theresa May has already struck remains the only mechanism for leaving the EU other than without a deal. In fact, the official Labour Party policy acknowledges this to the point that it commits the party to not renegotiating an agreement it is also simultaneously committed to voting down.

Of course by now it should be no surprise that the Labour leadership approaches Brexit with total bad faith. But it is beginning to look like we must make the same view of backbench Labour MPs pushing for a soft Brexit too. The clamour for indicative votes this week is just the latest utterly facile retreat into process — the legally binding part of the withdrawal agreement must remain unchanged (and such a process would be infinitely more valuable should a meaningful vote pass). In other words, should the likes of Stephen Kinnock and Yvette Cooper be successful they still have to vote for Brexit and the deal.

This, cynically, is something I have more than a suspicion many soft Brexiteers are desperate to avoid. Indeed, I rather suspect that the avoidance of substantive choice is the whole point of soft Brexit on the Labour side; indicative of a determination not to own the politics of either enabling or stopping Brexit. This is not as unreasonable as it sounds — remember, none of these MPs wanted a referendum in the first place. Yet if they believe their own rhetoric about the horrors of no deal then frankly this position is longer tenable. Because the idea that playing chicken with that scenario is justified by an urgent need to secure a non-binding commitment to a customs union, is just about the most nonsensical argument yet put forward in this whole desperate saga.

It is time then for Labour’s soft Brexiteers to show some courage and choose. Plenty of their colleagues — and not only in Remain seats — have embraced stopping Brexit as their true objective. But if they do remain committed both to Brexit and stopping no deal, then a principled argument for voting down the deal can no longer be sustained.

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Alan Lockey is Head of Research at Demos.