There is a slight problem with Labour’s attempt to blame Theresa May’s obstinacy for the likely failure of talks between the Conservatives and Labour on how to end the Brexit deadlock: the prime minister has compromised on almost everything.
May’s only political objective, which long precedes Brexit, is controlling immigration. It is her biggest weakness – creating a myopia which resulted, for instance, in the Windrush scandal. But it is also the scene of her greatest triumph.
The withdrawal deal agreed with the EU effectively ends free movement of labour. It gives ground on everything else, and is in fact perfectly aligned to Labour’s professed Brexit policy. May is spectacularly bad at PR, but in terms of policy, the deal was a remarkable achievement.
The notion that May has been hamstrung by the hard Brexit contingent in her own party has been overstated. Her “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra has been much misunderstood, since it referred to no trade deal, rather than no withdrawal deal (although, admittedly, May’s rhetoric was deliberately vague in this regard).
She has of course had to keep up appearances for the sake of party unity, but her Chequers plan (remember that?) definitively revealed she had forsaken the hard Brexiters. The direction of policy ever since has only been softwards.
It has become a cliché to argue that Jeremy Corbyn is, for various reasons, seeking to ensure Brexit happens – while avoiding the blame. This is true enough, but too simplistic. Corbyn is not an ardent Brexiter, but rather indifferent to Brexit and content to allow the chaos of Brexit to persist as long as it creates the possibility of achieving his own overriding aim: forcing a general election.
Despite May’s victories in two confidence votes, and the likelihood Labour would lose a general election, the party’s election-first policy remains in place. The prospect of a general election means Corbyn can just about hold off demands from within his own support base for a second referendum, although it is increasingly clear Labour will only be able to force an election after Brexit finally occurs, rather than as a way of breaking the Brexit logjam.
As such, Corbyn’s position is no longer compatible with Labour’s agreed policy at all. But the talks with May offer an opportunity to continue to make the case for an election. The best-case scenario for Corbyn is that he can be seen to be attempting to compromise with May, thereby strengthening the case for an election if she refuses.
Labour’s frontbenchers continue to bemoan May’s intransigence, yet they must be aware that most of their ostensible objectives are already in the bag. The “backstop” encapsulates Labour’s position, and the political declaration is vague enough to allow a future government, of either party, to shape the only deal with the EU that really matters.
The main task of shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer at the moment appears to be finding a form of words on the customs union and workers’ rights which allows Labour to claim that it has won a concession from May, while being careful not to actually unpick the withdrawal deal or political declaration.
Labour still isn’t ready to answer the kind of questions these concessions would raise about its actual Brexit preferences. So it continues to peddle the line about May’s obstinacy. There have been times in the past couple of years when Starmer has seemed to represent a singular voice of sincerity on Brexit, across both front benches. But the Brexit quagmire drags even the best of us down eventually.
May risks her party
Labour’s only substantive criticism of May’s withdrawal deal is one of process, not content – apparently the prime minister has failed to “reach out”. So, on top of everything else, she plays along. She reaches out. Yes, the offer of talks was, in part, an attempt to shift the blame for likely failure on to the opposition. But let’s not underestimate just how much May has sacrificed on her own benches just by offering to talk to Corbyn. The illusion that she is trying to keep the ERG on board is finally shattered – and the Conservative Party may well not survive.
May even appears to have conceded the prospect of a confirmatory vote in return for parliament finally passing her withdrawal problem.
And herein lies Corbyn’s double dilemma. He does not want to agree to the deal, because an orderly Brexit would mean the prospect of a general election recedes. And he does not want a second referendum, because he cannot possibly fight another referendum on EU membership without fatally exposing the contradictions within his own support base.
Much better that the talks fail. Labour can easily ensure they get no concessions from May, by not actually asking for any.
May simply does not get it. She does not understand the fatalism of the creed which now rules the Labour Party. For May, Brexit is a necessary evil – and the Brexit negotiations an exercise in damage limitation.
Her motives in inviting Labour to talks may not have been pure, and her tactics may be amateurish, but does anyone really believe she wants the talks to fail? She does not. She just wants her deal – the only version of withdrawal the EU will accept that comes anywhere close to respecting her interpretation of the referendum result – to get through.
The Labour leadership, in contrast, seems determined to ensure the talks fail. And indeed fail in a very specific way, that is, one which prevents the question of a second referendum even being posed.
There are nevertheless contingencies here. If May does succeed in securing an extension to Article 50, or agrees to the much longer extension requested by the EU, the calculus shifts.
Similarly, there may be a second referendum option as part of a “binding indicative votes” process, if May shames Corbyn into supporting Labour’s own policy. But even if this option gets Labour’s formal backing, Corbyn might have created just enough confusion around whether the party’s election-first policy still stands to undermine the “last resort” rationale for a second referendum which many Labour MPs have concocted.
There also remains the slim possibility of a revolt against Corbyn, which will see a second referendum pushed more aggressively by Labour.
But I think his position is largely unimpeachable. I also think he will get his general election – but only after the UK leaves the EU without a withdrawal deal.