Brexit: Labour’s second chance

Despite the ‘untidy’ edges, Labour has emerged from its conference with an essential element of its Brexit policy now firmly in place. The commitment to put whatever a withdrawal agreement might be to a public vote is the right approach to the current crisis. Late to the party Labour may be, but still better than not getting there at all.

The facts are clear: the experience and outcomes of the Brexit negotiating process has been at odds with the promises made by the Brexiteers - both during and after the 2016 referendum. Theresa May declared Article 50 with no plan to speak of. She sought a mandate for her ‘hard Brexit’ strategy and the electorate denied her. A politician with antenna for the public mood would have sought consensus. Head she done so there is little doubt that the UK would, by now, have left the Union. Instead Mrs May sought to placate her right flank coalescing with the DUP’s minority view in the north of Ireland. The outcome, given the self-imposed UK Government ‘red lines’, was inevitable, the hunt for unicorns and probable retreat to a ‘single market’ solution buried in the political declaration - or not. An exercise in walking the plank blindfold awaited.

The collapse of Mrs May’s administration took the process even further into the Europhobic vortex with the ludicrous notion that the only ‘true Brexit’ is the complet severing of ties with the EU. No mandate for ‘no deal’ exists. The suggestion that this was the true intent of those supporting the ‘leave’ option in 2016 is absurd in the extreme.

At present these two options are the only outcomes on offer short of cancelling Brexit altogether. As none of the fundamentals have changed any ‘deal’ presented by Mr Johnson’s administration can only be Theresa May’s ‘deal’ in a blonde wig. The notion of revoking Article 50, as espoused by the Liberal Democrats, is seriously problematic. It may make great petition material and it may suit the personal view of a substantial cross-section of the country but it is simply not sustainable as a public policy. The Liberal Democrat’s would contend that they would Revoke Article 50 if they  were to achieve a majority at a General Election - somewhat unlikely. Their real objective is a repeat of their European Election strategy - the harvesting of the firmest supporters of remaining in the EU to their banner. Critically, this divides supporters of remaining in the European Union and dilutes support for putting the real Brexit outcomes to the test. You have seriously to ask yourself whether or not the Liberal Democrats are remotely serious about ‘stopping Brexit’ or whether their real agenda is simply to rebuild their vote.

Mr Johnson for his part would love to exploit this division. The not exactly subtle plan of the shadow PM, Dominic Cummings, was to lose in the Commons and seek a General Election believing that the opposition parties had no option but to follow. Their attempts to bring on a General Election were rightly turned down by Parliament. The priority for Mr Johnson is to squeeze support from the Brexit Party and thus benefit from first past the post to defeat a divided opposition despite diminished Conservative support. While they rightly see their best option as an election following a UK exit, their next best choice is to present to the electorate as the ‘no deal’ party promising to ‘deliver Brexit’. Either way, understand Mr Johnson’s strategy as being about salvaging an electorally viable Conservative Party from the ruins of Brexit - whatever it takes. The problem is that elections are inexact, while a ‘Brexit election’ is all very well it would inevitably become mixed up with issues of leadership, policy and fitness to govern. It is highly debatable if an election will produce a clear mandate.

The question now facing Labour MPs is how to act. The distant prospects of public votes and caretaker governments are less unlikely than before Mr Johnson’s assent and declared intent once again to break the law over a crash out exit in defiance of the will of Parliament. The UK’s constitution of precedent and legal safeguard is being seriously tested. Mr Johnson has been shown too willing to put that settlement at risk. It is almost certain that his removal will be a necessary step.

Though far from ideal, in these circumstances the best tactic for Labour and for the country is a public vote on the Brexit settlement. Messy as this might be there is simply no other way to reconcile the country to accepting the outcome. Even were such a vote to result in another vote to leave it would be better than the present situation where either half the country or before long all of the country will be utterly unreconciled to the outcome. There are risks but the balance leans heavily in favour of injecting accountability into the Brexit process and determining what ‘the will of the people’ might be in 2020.

Nonetheless, desirable as a second vote may be, it may prove democratically impossible to deliver in any satisfactory way. Labour may face an election very soon, before Brexit is resolved and will need to deal with the reality that Brexit will distort all possible outcomes. In those circumstances clarity will matter. To repeat the mistakes of the European Election would be seriously damaging to Labour and disastrous for the country.