With the shaky approval from a splintered cabinet of the draft agreement over the terms of UK withdrawal from the European Union, the tortuous and sorry story of Brexit reached another milestone.
It is an agreement that seems to satisfy almost no-one, denounced by both leavers and remainers as worse than the UK’s current position, and delivers few of the so-called benefits of leaving. It is an embodiment of the contradictory claims of the leave campaign coming face to face with the rigidities of the EU and the fraught politics of the island of Ireland.
And yet the logistics of parliamentary procedure, combined with political weariness, leave the future direction uncertain. As Martin Kettle noted in The Guardian, ‘a deal in practice has more force than a deal in theory’.
Time is of the essence
International negotiations are replete with immovable red lines that end up bending, fading or smudging as the prospect of agreement comes within touching distance. The opposing parties’ real bottom lines – what they will put their signatures to – are only revealed in the final acts. To begin to unpick agreements such as this, particularly when the other side’s negotiating position is as complex as the EU’s, is a big political gamble. The impending Article 50 deadline of 29 March 2019, merely increases the pressure on all sides to proceed come what may.
Although Theresa May looks likely to lose the support of the DUP and some Tory Brexiteers, the agreement may still win parliamentary approval for the pressure on remain MPs of both major parties will be immense. Indeed, you can almost write the soundbites of rapidly reversing remainers already: ‘It’s time to end the uncertainty’; ‘We need to act in the national interest’; ‘We must bring the country together’; ‘Let’s accept with regret this imperfect deal as the best we can get’.
Even if a people’s vote came about, however, it’s still unclear what Labour’s position would be. After all, its existing policy is to leave the EU.
Labour’s options in these circumstances are not easy, for it finds itself in a difficult position that’s partly of its own making. Back in January 2017, there were warnings that in not opposing triggering Article 50, Labour would be storing up problems for the future. To go back to the EU and seek to unpick the results of a long and complex process of negotiation is not easy.
In the two years since then, the choices have become clearer, while the logic of, and support for outright opposition to Brexit has grown. Yet the Labour’s current position remains to call for a general election, take over the negotiations and find an agreement with the EU that satisfies its six tests.
If this is not quite in the realm of fantasy, it is at the very least a highly improbable outcome. It would require, first, the House of Commons to vote for a general election – currently an extremely remote prospect – then the EU (including the Commission, 27 member states and the EU Parliament) to extend the Article 50 deadline, re-open the whole package of issues that have been thrashed out over the past two years and agree to terms that satisfy Labour’s tests – which, let us not forget, include giving the UK greater control over migration.
Short of a general election, the options facing Labour are to seek to amend the withdrawal agreement through parliament in favour of something like a Norway-style trade arrangement with protection for environmental regulations and workers’ rights; or to seek a ‘people’s vote’.
Being able to amend the deal in Parliament is far from certain (for reasons of procedure and levels of support in the Commons) and would simply create further dilemmas. If some, but not all, of Labour’s ‘red lines’ were met, would it then back the government? Some argue that several of those red lines have already been met, and Tory support for a ‘Norway +’ style deal is growing, but at what point does this become an acceptable Brexit for Labour?
With little prospect of a general election nor of substantial amendment, the push for a second referendum becomes more central. Following the hard-won compromise agreed at conference in September, a referendum would have to present the electorate with a choice between May’s deal and remain, as John McDonnell seems to have conceded. This seems more likely than a general election, if for no other reason than it presents a way out of the parliamentary impasse, possibly the only way.
It would still be a very difficult process, requiring a pause in the withdrawal timetable, a referendum bill in parliament and a referendum itself. But it is just about conceivable that such a route could get parliamentary support and there is increasing poll evidence that voters do want another say and do want the option to remain.
The opposition front bench, which should be leading the fight against May in Parliament, is failing to provide a focal point around which to coalesce the various discontents.
Even if a people’s vote came about, however, it’s still unclear what Labour’s position would be. After all, its existing policy is to leave the EU. The absurdity of its current position is that if we had a general election, the current policy would be to leave; whilst if we had a referendum, it would campaign to remain.
The tactical and strategic choices facing Labour are far from easy, but the party leadership must bear some of the blame for this. In seeking to triangulate between leave-supporting voters in Labour ‘heartlands’ and ardent remainers elsewhere, and among the party’s membership and MPs, it has fudged the Brexit issue for too long. Opportunities to delay the process – such as when triggering Article 50 – were squandered. And the prospect of building a coalition of support to reverse the decision of June 2016, in Parliament and the country, has been impossible when the party line has been one of prevarication and fudge.
Such an approach arguably had some value up until the 2017 election when it could be ‘all things to all people’ and escape serious scrutiny. But the nearer we come to the Article 50 deadline, the deeper is the dilemma and the higher the stakes.
Leading the fight
At the moment, it is unclear what opposing May’s deal will mean and what alternative route the party is offering parliament and the country. Without clarity on this, the forces pushing to accept a deal ‘in the national interest’ have a clearer run.
The opposition front bench, which should be leading the fight against May in Parliament, is failing to provide a focal point around which to coalesce the various discontents. Popular opposition to Brexit, illustrated by the massive anti-Brexit rally in London in October, has been met with a deafening silence from the party leadership.
What we have, on the face of it, is a party leadership willing to stand on principle and challenge public opinion where it needs to – on immigration, refugees or discrimination say – yet curiously unwilling to campaign to change the views of leave voters. Maybe it is true that Jeremy Corbyn’s and John McDonnell’s traditional anti-EU leftism remains in place and they secretly welcome the prospect of leaving the EU. If so, it flies in the face of their often-stated commitment to party democracy – that they would respect the wishes of the membership on issues of policy.
Recent polls have dispelled almost entirely any remaining doubt about the views of increasing numbers of Labour members and voters. Indeed, the anti-Brexit feeling was evident at party conference when Keir Starmer’s declaration that “nobody is ruling out remain as an option” prompted a standing ovation and an almost palpable sense of relief that a member of the front bench was giving voice to what many party members hold dear.
As former Corbyn advisor Richard Murphy has argued, “Labour really has to argue to stay and reform. It is the only credible position.”
Time is short, but Labour can vacillate no longer. The closer we come to the Article 50 deadline, the clearer becomes the price of leaving the EU. If Labour doesn’t seize the initiative now, and express greater clarity on where it wants to take the country, May’s faltering leadership could rapidly be replaced by something far worse.
This is an edited version of a blog that first appeared on the Independent Labour Publications website.