As if politics were not chaotic and uncertain enough already, a Scottish court has ruled that Boris Johnson’s controversial proroguing of parliament is unlawful. We’ll have to wait until the ultimate judgment by the UK’s Supreme Court to know whether that will be overturned and parliament’s five-week recess will carry on as planned or whether the ruling will be upheld. If it is upheld MPs will troop back to Westminster, no doubt demanding the Prime Minister’s head and trying anew to find a route through the Brexit quagmire. In that event, Labour will be cock-a-hoop. Yet its own position on Brexit is, in many people’s eyes, as unclear as everything else about where British politics is heading: its leader wants one thing, his deputy quite another. So what should Labour’s policy on Brexit be?
The Labour leadership is pretty pleased with how things have gone since Boris Johnson turfed Theresa May out of Downing Street. In just the single week that parliament has been sitting since then they have defeated the new prime minister in vote after vote, making him wait for the election he craves and passing a law forbidding him from leading Britain out of the European Union on 31 October without a deal. Mr Johnson’s only victory has been in pushing through the prorogation of parliament, which began this week, and which, whatever he may say his intention was, gives him a breathing space in which to work out what to do without opposition politicians thwarting him at every turn. But now even that is in doubt. And the publication on Wednesday of the government’s ‘Yellowhammer’ report about the possible worst-case impact of a no-deal Brexit has served to intensify criticism of him for sending parliament away in the first place.
Mr Johnson had wanted an election in October because he saw it as the best chance to free himself from the straitjacket imposed by his lack of a Commons majority and so gain more room for manoeuvre before the Brexit deadline of 31 October, to which he has so firmly committed himself. He was emboldened to do it because, despite all the extraordinary turmoil of these early weeks of his premiership, the Conservative Party is ten points ahead of Labour in the polls. Back in the spring, Labour was pushed into third place in the European Parliament elections (behind the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats) and since then it has been trailing behind the Tories and barely ahead of the resurgent LibDems.
Many observers, and indeed many Labour MPs, believe the reason for this poor showing is the ambivalence of the party’s Brexit policy. Voters simply don’t know whether Labour is a Leave or Remain party, they say.
The problem facing Jeremy Corbyn is easy enough to explain, at least when it is seen in purely electoral terms. Three million Labour voters backed Leave in the 2016 referendum. Many of them live in Labour seats in the Midlands and the north of England and he cannot afford to alienate them by seeming to be lukewarm about Brexit, still less pro-Remain, especially when the Brexit Party is positioning itself to appeal to just such voters. But equally, in order to have any hope of winning a majority at the next election, he needs to win seats in the south where there is a much larger Remain vote.
But Labour’s problem goes beyond this electoral conundrum. Like other parties, its senior members are divided about what they actually believe regarding Brexit. The majority of Labour MPs and party members were Remain supporters during the referendum. But Mr Corbyn himself, and his closest advisers, have a long history of being opposed to the EU and of believing that Britain, especially a Britain with aspirations to a socialist future, should be outside.
The result of all this is a policy many regard as a fudge. And this week the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, said it should be abandoned in favour of ‘unequivocally’ backing Remain.
Labour’s official policy has been to make its first priority stopping a no-deal Brexit. In this Mr Corbyn and Mr Watson are at one. That’s why they successfully promoted with other parties and with Tory rebels a bill effectively prohibiting a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. That bill became law this week. It’s why too they declined to back Mr Johnson’s proposal for calling an election in mid-October, despite the fact that Labour had been calling for an election for months. They didn’t want to take the risk that a no-deal Brexit at the end of the month might then become possible again, should Mr Johnson win that election. They’d have the election later, thank you.
But beyond that the Labour leader and his deputy disagree. Mr Corbyn’s policy is that once the threat of that no-deal Brexit has passed and the deadline for leaving pushed forward to the end of January, that is the time for an election: in November or December. And in that election the party would promise that a Labour government would negotiate with the EU a ‘credible’ deal for leaving, and then put that Brexit deal alongside a Remain option to the public in a referendum. Crucially, however, Mr Corbyn agreed with union leaders at the TUC on Tuesday that in that referendum the Labour government would not make a recommendation one way or the other as to how people should vote. In short, Labour’s official position would remain neutral.
This is unusual, to say the least. In both the 1975 and 2016 referendums on British membership of the EU, the prime ministers of the day, Harold Wilson and David Cameron, allowed dissident cabinet members to campaign on the other side of the argument – even though their governments had a very clear policy of their own: to stay in. A Jeremy Corbyn government wouldn’t.
It’s this continuing fudge that Mr Watson attacked in a speech on Wednesday. In the first place, he argues that the party should withhold agreement to calling an election not just to the end of October, when the no-deal threat has been seen off, but beyond that too. That’s because he thinks the party should be advocating holding a referendum first. His reasoning is that ‘elections should never be single issue campaigns’; clearly he thinks any election held before Brexit is resolved would end up being just such a single issue election.
And in such a late autumn election, Labour, with its ambivalent views on whether Brexit is a good idea or not, would risk being squeezed by parties with altogether much clearer views, most notably the Brexit Party and the LibDems. Only this week the LibDem’s new leader, Jo Swinson, committed the party to abandoning Brexit altogether, without even holding another referendum, if it came to power. The LibDems’ unequivocal appeal to centre-left Remainers could cost Labour seats in any such election. But, Mr Watson argues, if the whole Brexit issue had been sorted out in a referendum before the next election, this threat would disappear as those centre-left voters returned to Labour on other grounds, as would Labour-inclined Brexiteers.
But this approach was challenged by, among others, one of his Labour colleagues in the Parliamentary Labour Party, Gareth Snell, who claimed there is absolutely no appetite for another referendum among the public (at least in his Stoke-on-Trent constituency). Mr Snell is one of a group of cross-party MPs who believe that there is more of a chance now than ever for a Brexit deal to get through the House of Commons and that’s what the extra time gained after the end of October should be used to achieve. Whatever Mr Watson may want, there’s little chance MPs in the current House of Commons will vote for another referendum.
But Mr Watson’s ideas went much further than advocating a referendum before an election. He argues that Labour should ‘unequivocally back Remain’ whether in a referendum or a general election. The core of Mr Watson’s argument is that there is ‘no such thing as a good Brexit deal’. In other words, the ‘credible Brexit deal’ Mr Corbyn says Labour would negotiate and then present as one option in a referendum couldn’t be credible because, in Mr Watson’s view, no Brexit deal can be any good. Labour must become the party of Remain.
Mr Watson’s idea, however, has been flatly rejected by Mr Corbyn. Indeed one of his closest allies, Len McCluskey of the Unite union, witheringly dismissed both the proposal and Mr Watson himself, whom he accused of simply trying to undermine the Labour leader and whose views ‘don’t really matter anymore’.
But that leaves Labour still on the fence, telling voters they’d get another referendum under a Labour government but refusing to say how it believed voters should vote. Mr Watson is not alone in thinking that that will satisfy no one and that in the election that now looks highly likely to take place in November or December, formerly Labour-supporting Leave voters will desert to the Brexit Party (or even the Tories), while their Remain-backing equivalents will flock to the LibDems.
So should Labour get off the fence? And, if so, which way should it jump?
Let us know what you think.