Jeremy Corbyn has not blinked, but rather continues to insist he will not talk to Theresa May unless she agrees to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Labour is right of course to argue that leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement should be definitively taken off the table. The idea that this would weaken the UK’s negotiating position vis-à-vis the EU is hubristic nonsense.
But is this what Corbyn is really saying? Sadly not. The no deal red line is a sideshow. Corbyn’s real, underlying message to the prime minister is that there are no circumstances in which Labour will offer the government any votes. He can avoid the need to compromise with May, by avoiding being offered a compromise.
Corbyn knows May cannot rule out no deal at this stage. By refusing to participate in private discussions, Corbyn knows full well he is pushing May further in the direction of the hard Brexiteers within her party, making no deal much more likely.
This is not to suggest that Corbyn wants to leave without a withdrawal deal. But he is quite prepared to risk a no deal exit for the sake of pursuing his only meaningful ambition, that is, a general election.
Crucially, this is also a strategy which serves only to nudge the UK ever closer to a chaotic exit. This is partly because Labour would in all likelihood lose a general election, as things stand. It is also partly because May is not going to lose a confidence vote, or voluntarily resign – so demanding her departure makes compromise ever more unlikely.
And it is mainly because, even if Labour were to somehow force May out, the law of the land states that the Conservatives will be given time to form a different government before an election can be granted. There is no reason to believe that another Conservative leader would acquiesce. The Tory benches, in collusion with the DUP, would quickly settle on either Jeremy Hunt or Sajid Javid as leader – both one-time remainers, with different degrees of reluctance, who will almost certainly be required to have declared that no deal is no problem in order to emerge victorious.
So why is Corbyn pursuing something that is unlikely to happen, and unlikely to work in Labour’s favour even if it were to happen? Corbynism is a perspective rooted in Bennite politics, but more specifically the defeat of Bennism in the 1980s. Corbynism is thus defined by its marginality, a vantage which drove a self-affirming folklore of political martyrdom on Labour’s residual hard left.
Corbyn often gets credit for the vagueness of Labour’s Brexit position at the 2017 snap election. But it was, at best, an accidental strategy. Corbyn, like Boris, wanted to have his cake and eat it too, both supporting Brexit and criticising the right-wing Brexit project.
Most Corbyn supporters are dedicated remainers. Some on the younger, more liberal Corbynite wing now begrudgingly advocate some form of soft Brexit, such as Norway-plus. It is an arrangement the EU (and indeed Norway) opposes, and which May cannot possibly accept. Substantively, it is a rather absurd suggestion, which would involve precisely none of the control Labour leavers hope to gain by leaving the EU, nor the continental influence which the “remain and reform” Labour mainstream craves.
Its advocates must know this – but it is simply the best they can come up in seeking to square their own commitment to Corbyn, with Corbyn’s own commitment to Brexit. Labour’s next generation of leaders remain too attached to Corbyn, organisationally and emotionally, to yet break ranks in sufficient numbers.
Above all, most Corbynites would like to see a “people’s vote”, and have yet to comprehend why their hero refuses to budge. His amendment to the government’s latest motion appears to throw them a bone, but we should not be fooled. Labour has still not committed to supporting a second referendum, even if the other options fail. Even if the amendment passed – which it will not – it could just as easily be seen as a means by which a second referendum can be ruled out by parliament, once and for all.
As such, although neither the no deal red line, nor the hint at a people’s vote, can be taken at face value, Corbyn’s advocacy of remaining in the customs union should, in contrast, be seen as sincere. But it would be quite wrong to understand Labour’s position as a compromise. It represents exactly what Corbyn has always wanted: it would see the UK leaving the EU, while paradoxically being unable to sign independent trade deals (emblematic of a “neoliberal” policy agenda) with non-EU countries.
Like almost everything Labour has suggested since 2016, it is rather implausible. But Corbynism is an all-or-nothing creed. For the chance to pursue the complete victory of a shot at a general election, Corbyn is quite prepared to risk complete defeat. He expects no less, and no more.
Dr Craig Berry is a reader in political economy at Manchester Metropolitan University
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies