By Labour Briefing editors
The Parliamentary rejection of Theresa May’s ill-conceived Brexit deal by 230 votes was the largest defeat for a sitting government on record. In normal circumstances, a Prime Minister would resign. The fact that May clings on says less about her tenacity and more about the complete absence of pressure from Conservative ranks for her to go: none of them wants her job until Brexit is safely out of the way.
Belatedly, the government is holding cross-party talks. It is impossible not to see this as yet more prevarication – just like the month’s delay in the crucial Commons vote – a ploy to arm-twist MPs into submission as the clock ticks towards a catastrophic No Deal Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn was totally right not to fall for this and to demand that the threat of No Deal be removed before meaningful talks could happen. The way May’s orchestrated announcement of her “disappointment” at this triggered a co-ordinated barrage of anti-Corbyn headlines underlined her shabby manoeuvre for what it was.
If one lesson is to be learned from recent events, it is that Theresa May can never be trusted. She lied about an early election, she ran the entire Brexit process for the exclusive benefit of her party, only to blame everyone else when it fell apart, she pulled the crucial parliamentary vote in December at the last minute because she knew she would be trounced and she has continued to push ahead with vicious benefit cuts, often unnoticed amid the crisis and chaos she has created.
Now her government is paralysed. Corbyn was absolutely right to call it a “zombie government”, effectively in office without power. May can’t rule out No Deal for fear of losing her party’s Brexiteers, and because it is the only hope she has of browbeating MPs into accepting some version of her current deal. She won’t be budging on this – and neither will we. This stand-off, against the backdrop of the countdown to crashing out of the EU in March, is panicking some to demand Corbyn now supports a second referendum. As party conference agreed, this remains an option, but it’s not a panacea. To revisit the deep divisions of 2016 holds implicit dangers. A recent Survation poll – the most accurate of the pollsters during the 2017 general election – showed a three-point lead for Labour would be wiped out if it – rather than the Tories – called now for a second vote.
A second referendum may be May’s only way out, if she wants to avoid both a No Deal Brexit and a general election. But for Labour to call for this immediately would be to fall into a well-laid trap, enabling our enemies to depict us as elitists, pitched against the will of the people. A populist campaign to ‘send the Westminster bubble a clear message’ could well prove effective, given that most people just want Brexit over. That said, we must be ready in any event to fight on these fronts if a referendum is called.
As Labour’s no-confidence motion underlined, Jeremy Corbyn does not command a majority in Parliament. But we are getting closer to power and it’s clear – especially given the achievement of overcoming a 20 point poll deficit in 2017 – we could win a general election. There are many reasons to be hopeful amid the wreckage! And there may be other ways around the current impasse. As we go to press, a cross-party initiative is proposing a bill to allow MPs to usurp the functions of government, delay Article 50 and rule out a No Deal Brexit. In practice this may be the surest way to give teeth to Jeremy’s demand and take No Deal right off the table once and for all.
These are strange times. Some business leaders are increasingly aware that No Deal Brexiteers may not have their interests at heart – pretty obvious given Boris Johnson’s alleged “Fuck business” outburst last year. They may conclude that a Corbyn government could be preferable to the current chaos and incompetence. We need to keep up the pressure from our side that only a general election and a Labour government can lead the way out of this mess.
In the long run, whether Britain is in or out of the EU, Labour should commit strongly to maintaining a close relationship. We are internationalists, not insular isolationists, and politically and culturally, as much as economically, we are inextricably bound up with the fate of Europe. Events in France underline the complete failure of neo-liberal centrism to tackle the social crisis. Across Europe the far right is on the rise. Only socialism can meet the challenges, and the ideas and leadership of Jeremy Corbyn can be a beacon of hope across the continent.
This is the editorial from the latest Labour Briefing magazine – subscribe today.