May has killed Brexit and killed her party – which means Corbyn will have to come out for Remain

It is not outlandish to predict that Farage’s Brexit Party could overtake the Conservatives in the opinion polls for the next general election

John Rentoul
Saturday 27 April 2019 13:51
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Keir Starmer slaps down Corbyn's aides over Final Say question

Jeremy Corbyn is likely to become prime minister at the next election. That is one of the consequences of our failure to leave the EU. If we are going to stay in the EU, and I think we are, it changes everything.

It means, first of all, that the Conservative Party is a smoking ruin. It has failed to deliver Brexit. It is the government that promised in the referendum three years ago: “The government will implement what you decide.”

I don’t think it is an overreaction to say that the Tories will not recover from what most Leavers will regard as a betrayal for many years. The full extent of the structural damage is not visible yet. Not least because the party will stay in government for a while yet and, indeed, Theresa May could stay as prime minister.

When the executive of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs met this week, its members peered over the ridge of the next hill and saw Boris Johnson advancing towards them. They recoiled in horror and put chairs up against the doors. They do not want Johnson as prime minister even more than they do not want May as prime minister.

Left to their own devices, Conservative MPs would probably choose Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt or David Lidington to lead them, but the wider party membership cannot be trusted with that decision. A Conservative Home survey of members suggested that Johnson or Dominic Raab would thrash any candidate of the pragmatic tendency. Con Home is quite a fierce advocate of a no-deal exit, and so its self-selected respondents may be biased, but not, I think, enough to invalidate its results.

So they carry on, deceptively calm on the surface but in turmoil underneath. Because the other reason for hesitating over getting Johnson in as prime minister is that he wouldn’t be able to take the UK out of the EU either. Parliament won’t allow the UK to leave without a deal, and nor will it vote for an early general election.

The only way Brexit can happen is if EU leaders decide they have had enough and force us out. If that happened in October, the House of Commons would probably vote for the withdrawal agreement rather than a no-deal exit or revoking Brexit altogether. But I doubt if Emmanuel Macron, or anyone else, would push us out. The EU27 would not want to take the risk of provoking a no-deal exit, and in any case they have worked out that, if they give us enough time, we are likely – eventually – to change our minds about leaving.

That means the Tories are done for; that Corbyn is likely to win the next election; and that Nigel Farage is likely to be the main voice opposing him over the next three years.

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Farage’s new Brexit Party will win the European elections, but that is just the beginning. If there is a by-election in a Leave-voting seat, the Brexit Party will probably win it. If Conservative MPs defect to the Brexit Party, and if they stand down to fight by-elections as Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless did when they defected to Ukip in 2014, they will probably win them.

If there is a Brexit Party candidate for mayor of London next year, they may well come second to a re-elected Sadiq Khan. Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate, will be lucky to come fourth.

I don’t think it is outlandish to predict that Farage’s outfit could overtake the Tories in the opinion polls for the next general election. Instead of people talking about how hard it is for Change UK to break through in the “first past the post” voting system, they will be discussing where the tipping point between the Tories and the Brexit Party might be.

And all that means that Labour is bound to become the “Remain” party. I don’t know what Labour’s national executive will decide about its policy on a new referendum at its meeting on Tuesday. I suspect Corbyn will succeed in fudging it. Perhaps all those European election leaflets can be saved from recycling by stamping “failing which a public vote must be on the table” in one corner.

But I can’t see how Labour could go into a general election in 2022, six years after the referendum, promising to take Britain out of the EU. It is foolish to try to predict so far in advance, but it is possible that Corbyn would define the general election as the “public vote”, and say that it would provide a mandate for staying in.

How ironic it would be if Corbyn, the lifelong Eurosceptic, became the leader who finally killed off Brexit.

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