“Love Corbyn. Hate Brexit,” said a banner at a recent left-wing anti-Brexit rally. But Labour members are finding it increasingly hard to do both, because Jeremy Corbyn is backing Brexit.
Team Corbyn calculated that his delicate balancing act – honouring the 2016 referendum while calling for a soft Brexit – would not prevent Remainers voting Labour. They certainly did so at last year’s election. Since then, the Labour leader has resisted calls for him to oppose Theresa May’s Brexit more vigorously, in part to avoid alienating those Leave voters in the North and Midlands who are natural Labour supporters.
But opinion is now shifting inside the party, amid the real prospect of either a bad Brexit deal or a chaotic no-deal departure.
Labour members, including many of Corbyn’s cheerleaders in Momentum, trade unions, backbench MPs and frontbenchers, are pressing him to stop colluding with May on Brexit. This pressure, rather than the party’s debilitating row over antisemitism, could be the main event at next month’s Labour conference in Liverpool, which is likely to keep open the option of backing a Final Say referendum.
Corbyn is not yet convinced; he will continue to do everything to trigger the general election he understandably craves. But there is a growing recognition among his allies that he is unlikely to get an election, since Tory turkeys on either side of their party’s Brexit divide will never vote for Christmas.
Opinion polls suggest growing support for a referendum, as well as doubts about Brexit among 2016 Leave voters. While some Labour MPs representing Leave areas fear a backlash if the party calls for a Final Say, the Labour Leave vote looks softer than it did in 2016.
So Labour’s wheels turn, albeit slowly, towards a referendum.
Several shadow cabinet members believe the party will back one if, as looks increasingly likely, parliament rejects May’s deal and blocks a no-deal exit next March. One told me: “A referendum may be the only way out of this mess.”
Labour MPs who support another public vote will change tactics as they try to push open a door that Corbyn has just about left ajar. They will make clear their campaign is not an attempt to destabilise him, or call for a change of leader or direction – an attempt to head off Corbynista claims that they are “bitter Blairites” plotting a breakaway centre party. The pro-Europeans will argue that Labour must oppose Brexit because the economic hit would hobble a Corbyn government, leaving it to preside over more austerity and powerless to revive public services and tackle inequality. That would wipe out any Brexit benefit Corbyn sees, such as state aid for industry.
I must admit I hadn’t noticed that the former Ukip leader had gone away, but never mind.
Ever since the 2016 vote, Farage has smelt a Brexit betrayal and said he would “reluctantly” be dragged back to the fray if the Tories did not honour the verdict. May’s Chequers plan for a softer Brexit gave him the opening he was always going to find at some point, whatever she did.
Farage is getting back on his battlebus, though Boris Johnson has more sense: if he followed suit, it would only remind voters of the non-existent £350m-a-week boost for the NHS he promised two years ago. Johnson at least acknowledges he must now answer the charge that hardline Brexiteers have no alternative to May’s blueprint, and is working on one. Farage has never been a details man; that’s for others. Announcing that “I’m back”, he attacked “Theresa the Appeaser” and declared that “now is the time for action”. A plan, however, there was not.
That hardliners feel the need to relaunch their 2016 campaign, and worry they might yet lose the war, should give Corbyn pause for thought. As the grim reality of Brexit dawns, the game is still open. Corbyn will not only have to answer what one Labour former cabinet minister described as the “what did you do to stop Brexit?” question if it goes pear-shaped. There is also the “whose side are you on?” question.
Does the Labour leader really want to line up with Farage and give succour to the populists, including the former Ukip leader’s sleazy pal Donald Trump? Does Corbyn really want to allow Farage to push the Tories into a hard Brexit or no-deal disaster? Or is Labour prepared to join forces with sensible pro-European Tories calling for parliament’s looming deadlock to be broken by referring the issue back to the people?
Finally, who does Corbyn want the history books to mark out as the decisive player in the closing act of the Brexit drama? Farage? Or himself?
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