Now for the Hard Part: One Month On

Now for the Hard Part: One Month On

December 2018 | Politics

After a hellish week for Theresa May, the focus is now on Jeremy Corbyn and his attempts to find a Brexit position supported by both his voters and his party.

I had been planning to write an article on how the Brexit debate seemed to be settling down for Christmas after a week of turmoil, when news popped up of Jeremy Corbyn tabling a motion of confidence in the Prime Minister. Like everyone else, I'd been assuming that he planned to wait until after the holidays. He has been under a lot of pressure from the other opposition parties to make his move, but until now he had resisted.

Corbyn is unique, in that no one knows what his position on Brexit actually is. As a backbencher, he was part of the Labour Leave squad alongside other left-wing mavericks such as Dennis Skinner, but as leader his opinion on the matter has been unclear. He campaigned for remain in the referendum, but not particularly enthusiastically, famously rating his interest in EU membership as 7 out of 10. His party is passionately opposed to Brexit, and even his allies in Momentum are desperate to avoid leaving the EU at all costs. The difficulty Labour faces is that their core voters are split on the issue. Many working class labour supporters voted to leave due to concerns about immigration. Fortunately for them, Brexit is not an issue which arouses much passion among Labour voters. It is more of a Tory concern, so Labour have been able to get away with being vague about where they stand.

The labour leader has consistently blocked any attempt to move the policy of his party towards a pro-remain platform, despite the wishes of his membership. His enemies see this as an attempt to force a no deal Brexit by the back door, thereby unleashing economic chaos and socialist revolution. This is an unfair characterisation because Corbyn's ambivalence on the EU is genuine. It is likely that he supports the idea of a European Union in principle, but believes that the current incarnation is a capitalist puppet, and reform is needed. He said as much to a meeting of the Party of European Socialists a few weeks ago. As such, his position is not too dissimilar to that of Theresa May, another moderate eurosceptic who backed remain. He supports the referendum result despite not voting for it but has no ideological attachment to the Brexit project. Like the Prime Minister, he believes his political agenda would be easier to implement outside of the single market so is willing to go along with the referendum result for that reason. He wants a Brexit deal though and is only opposing this one for political reasons rather than out of conviction.

His problem is that Momentum and a large chunk of his MPs oppose any sort of deal because they think they can overturn Brexit if the deal collapses. The leadership are well aware that a Labour attempt to overturn Brexit would drive a chunk of their base towards UKIP or Nigel Farage's new party. Equally, if Labour supports the deal, then a different chunk of their base will abandon them for the Lib Dems. For this reason, party policy has been to keep options open but to avoid No Deal at all costs. Whichever way Labour turns they are going to lose an element of their support, so Corbyn has stuck resolutely to the fence despite intense pressure from his MPs to do otherwise. Official Labour Policy is to force an election, and then negotiate their own Brexit deal. If this isn't possible, all options except no deal are on the table. As a result, he infuriated many of his supporter's last week by openly refusing to table a No Confidence motion until he was sure he could win. This was a transparent attempt to buy time, and prevent his party from bouncing him into supporting a second referendum.

In this vein, most people expected the No Confidence Motion to be tabled after the Meaningful Vote on the Brexit deal, but that vote was delayed last week and won't now happen until mid January. Consequently, tabling the motion now has caught everybody by surprise, but his reasons for doing it are clear. Firstly, there was much talk over the weekend of the DUP or some sulky Tory MPs going on strike and refusing to support the Prime Minister on any votes. A weekend in their constituencies has cooled heads somewhat, and it is fairly clear that her party will support the Prime Minister, and as such Theresa May should survive her second confidence vote in the space of a week. Corbyn might have guessed this, but given the level of discontent it was worth giving it a go. As it happens, the vote may not be held until the new year anyway for procedural reasons.

The other factor that might have affected his decision is the proposal floated by cabinet sources for a series of Commons votes on all available options. The cabinet is deeply split on how to proceed after the deal is voted down by MPs, but the suggestion to "test the will of Parliament" by organising free votes on alternative deals is gaining ground. This is supposed to prove that there is no support for any handling of Brexit in parliament and that the existing agreement is the only realistic option. Theresa May is opposing this for now, but will likely pivot to supporting it once her deal is voted down. She's still hoping to gain concessions from the EU, even though France and Ireland have vetoed any attempt to negotiate them. Jeremy Corbyn will support the free vote option too because it will prove to his MPs that there is no majority in parliament for a second referendum. Any new public vote would require government support to pass, but this won't be forthcoming until there is no other alternative because it would split the overwhelmingly pro-leave Tory party.

Despite this, it's pretty clear that everyone believes a second referendum is now inevitable. This doesn't mean that one will happen, but Brexiteers are already starting to organise for one. The majority of MPs on both sides know that a new vote would be highly divisive, and that victory would not be guaranteed, but want to avoid No Deal even more. They see a new vote as a trap and are looking for a way out, but events are outside of their control. More importantly, the EU wants a new vote as well. Their priority throughout all this has been to prevent another member state leaving. A reversal of the Brexit vote would be the ultimate validation of that strategy. Their refusal to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement is designed to force a second referendum. If this vote was won by the Leave campaign, expect serious attempts to provide a revised barebones deal. The commission indicated today that a "Managed No Deal" approach to Brexit is possible, which is a boost for the leave campaign and another worry for ministers desperate to avoid this scenario.

The only thing to expect now is the unexpected. Parliament is playing a game of chicken. The dividing lines are clear, and each side has their preferred option. Everyone is waiting for the other groups to compromise, but so far no one is budging. Theresa May is banking on Brexiteers supporting the deal to avoid a second referendum. Some will but probably not enough. She is also betting on sufficient remainers backing the deal to prevent No Deal, but this won't happen without Labour support, which will never be provided due to partisan advantage. If May's deal had proved popular, she would have gained opposition support for it, but it hasn't so there is no benefit to other parties in helping her.

Instead, there's been a lot of high drama over the past week, but we're still no further along in getting the deal through parliament. The deal is still the same, the level of support for it is still the same and the level of support for the Prime Minister is still the same. After a bout of bitter infighting, the threat of a parliamentary confidence vote has unified the Tory party against a common enemy - Corbyn's unabashed socialism unites conservatives in a way nothing else will. But then that's the Prime Minister's plan: to close off all the options until her deal is the only off left. By threatening to topple the government, the Labour party are playing right into her hands. Strangely, Jeremy Corbyn is going to be perfectly fine with that, after all this is his strategy as well.

Written by Alan Chatfield