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Brexit has given Corbyn the ball and an open goal – but he still won’t take the shot

With the other side fighting themselves in the other half of the pitch, the Labour leader has decided to betray his own team by ignoring wishes for a second referendum

Thursday 07 February 2019 17:17 GMT
Owen Smith says he is considering quitting the Labour party of Brexit position

Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015 partly because his party had grown weary of pragmatism, and his brand of idealism made for a refreshing change.

On Brexit, however, his idealism, if such it is, has reached ridiculous – and dangerous – proportions, because his policy is so unrealistic.

Mr Corbyn is also, quietly, defying the wishes of the vast majority of his party’s members, voters and MPs by edging his party towards supporting a version of Brexit not so very far removed from the Conservative position.

He has always made great play of being the servant of his members in a democratic party: the policy, as set out at conference, is for a general election and, failing that, all options to be placed on the table, including a Final Say referendum on Brexit.

Yet Mr Corbyn is not demanding that. It is not too strong, therefore, to call what he is now doing a form of betrayal. Anyone would think he was lukewarm about the EU, or, as he called it only a few years ago, the “massive great Frankenstein”.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Mr Corbyn persists in believing the European Union would happily redraft the fundamentals of its constitution to accommodate a “Labour Brexit”.

Throughout the “five demands” letter he has sent to the prime minister are ideas that she may or may not be willing or able to concede; but many of them are ones that the EU has already ruled out and to which it cannot accede without reinventing itself.

For example, the demand that the UK should be given “a say” in the EU’s trade negotiations with other countries is a privilege that has never been granted to any third country.

It would, presumably, place a British government’s international trade secretary, a post shadowed by the professional contortionist Barry Gardiner, at the negotiating table alongside Michel Barnier or Sabine Weyand, an invitation that is not extended to the trade ministers of, say, Germany or Greece.

Equally phantasmagorical is the idea that the UK would be granted privileged status in the institutional arrangements of the single market, which is to say the institutions of the EU itself: “shared institutions and obligations, with clear arrangements for dispute resolution”, as Mr Corbyn’s letter puts it, those arrangements being separate from the European Court of Justice.

Again, this is something that is impossible under the EU’s existing constitution, by potentially giving the UK voting rights as a non-member state, while also limiting the ECJ’s jurisdiction.

It is no surprise that Iceland and Norway, outside the EU but inside the single market, have not been granted such arrangements. They have also accepted the principle of free movement of labour, an important issue that Labour is reluctant to dwell on.

This is cakeism, albeit with pink rather than blue icing on it.

Such are Labour’s latest fantasies, which, even if they were proposals that the EU would entertain, cannot be formatted, let alone implemented, by any British government before 29 March.

By his own logic, in demanding such a radical rethink of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement, Mr Corbyn should also be more energetic in demanding a delay to the Brexit process, something, to be fair, that shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has indicated the party will pursue.

Moreover, if Mr Corbyn is serious about his plan, and his demand that “no deal” be taken off the table, he should act now to ensure that his party and the Commons reject that idea in the votes next week. That means supporting the amendment tabled by Yvette Cooper, and liaising with the other opposition parties and Conservatives to thwart a no-deal Brexit.

It also means ending his policy of benign indulgence towards his frontbenchers and backbenchers who choose to defy a three-line whip and party conference policy by abstaining on votes or by joining Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson in the division lobbies.

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The Labour Party has rarely faced such a challenge to its patriotic or its democratic internationalist credentials than it faces now.

Under the right leadership, the party could protect the economy, preserve good relations with the EU and ensure that, as its own policy demands, the British people be given the right to vote on the terms of Brexit.

Also, as Labour’s earlier “six tests” required, any Brexit proposal should mean “the exact same benefits” as currently enjoyed.

That is now absent from the latest version of Mr Corbyn’s ever shifting policy, but the British people will not have the option of rejecting such a deal.

To put it at its simplest, Mr Corbyn finds himself with the ball as his feet, facing an open goal with the opposing team over in the other half, fighting among themselves, the match officials and rival groups of fans.

He seems curiously slow to move his toe to the ball. If his beloved Arsenal played that way, he’d want the manager sacked.

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