Labour's Brexit plans are politically impossible

The Labour Party has attempted a delicate balancing act between its Eurosceptic and Europhilic contingents. A second referendum would expose a stark imbalance.

Jason S. Reed
Monday 09 December 2019 18:23 GMT
Tony Blair addresses The Independent's Final Say rally demanding a second Brexit referendum (Clip)

If Corbyn won’t support his own Brexit deal, who will?

Unlike the Conservative Party leadership contest earlier this year, this election presents two very different options – particularly when it comes to Brexit. The Conservatives, tapping into widespread frustration that we are still stuck in the mud three and a half years later, are promising to “get Brexit done” with their “oven-ready deal”.

Labour’s plan is more convoluted. The party has promised to conjure a new-and-improved withdrawal agreement in just three months, before holding a confirmatory referendum on it three months later. Yet even if anything close to that timetable were logistically possible, it is hard to see how it could be politically possible.

The Labour Party has since the referendum (and indeed long before it) attempted a delicate balancing act between its Eurosceptic and Europhilic contingents. A second referendum would expose a stark imbalance.

The vast majority of the Labour Party, both in and outside Parliament, now favours Remain. This is in part due to the success of Remainer Labour MPs at painting Brexit as a Conservative project by decrying a “damaging Tory Brexit”. Indeed, the tone of discourse within Labour has become so staunchly anti-Brexit that most find it impossible to endorse it, even on the softest possible terms.

This includes the party’s leader, who has done an informal deal with the Blairite faction of his party whose raison d'être has become to Remain at all costs: in return for his selling out on Brexit, they have signed up for the most socialist policy programme in recent history.

Who, then, would lead the Leave campaign in a confirmatory referendum? The Eurosceptic prime minister, the same who will have negotiated the deal, has promised to remain neutral. Other senior figures have been similarly coy: Rebecca Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon have both kicked the can down the road by saying that they will decide where they stand once the deal has been negotiated.

Perhaps other more openly Leave-supporting Labour MPs could lead the charge? Yet if a Labour government is formed on a mandate of a second referendum, many of these MPs – those who have until now supported Leave to avoid alienating their Brexit-voting constituents – may feel emboldened to abandon their tactical Leave support, and come out for Remain – leaving a vacuum where Leave-supporting Labour MPs should be.

If Labour will not endorse Leave in the referendum, nor will the Brexit or Conservative Parties, who will not unfairly view the whole thing as a choice between a soft Brexit and Remain – a choice they will loudly refuse. Given that this will precipitate mass abstentions from those who might otherwise have voted Leave, Remain will almost certainly win. Yet these abstentions will make the referendum result appear illegitimate.

Labour’s Brexit plan is, in other words, a recipe for disaster. Not only is it unclear what shape the new withdrawal agreement would take; a confirmatory referendum will open up new wounds in an already divided nation and, far from putting the issue to bed, make Brexit the issue du jour for years to come.

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