Labour scrapes to a by-election victory – and leaves the Brexit lessons for another day

It would have been much better for the Labour Party, and the country as a whole, if it had lost in Peterborough

Friday 07 June 2019 18:53
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Peterborough by-election: Labour holds off Brexit Party

The Labour Party should count itself very lucky that it managed to hang on to its Peterborough seat – just. The by-election was called, after all, after a recall petition prompted by the conviction of the previous Labour incumbent, Fiona Onasanya. Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit party fought a lively campaign but, being new, did not have the canvassing data that might have given it the same ability to get the vote out that Labour enjoyed.

Labour’s share of the vote collapsed by 17 percentage points, to 31 per cent, the worst winning share of the vote ever in a Westminster parliamentary by-election. With the Trump visit and the D-Day commemorations out of the way, Labour was able to make the most of the headlines about its defeat of the Farage mob, the “achievement” heightened by the widespread expectation that the Brexit Party would stroll to a landslide.

In the end, 683 votes separated the two parties, a paper-thin margin. This is why Labour’s talk of “victory” is a little overstated. The Labour vote, like that of the Conservatives, evaporated in part because the party has failed to construct a convincing message and policy on Brexit. As in the local and the European elections, Labour’s attempt to please Leave and Remain voters with an overcomplicated series of contingent possibilities ended up alienating Leave and Remain voters alike. Labour was fortunate to win as many votes as it did.

And so it was, with weary predictability, that Jeremy Corbyn came out into the sunshine to bask in what he may imagine to be a famous triumph, and reiterate that he is no hurry to strengthen his party’s commitment to a second referendum. He keeps asking instead for general election.

Perhaps he hadn’t fully grasped that the Conservatives got 9 per cent in the European elections and their vote share in Peterborough was halved. In the middle of a leadership election and with Nigel Farage on their case, the Conservatives are unlikely to oblige Mr Corbyn with another snap general election.

In fact, it would have been much better for the Labour Party, and the country as a whole, if it had lost in Peterborough. That way the lesson that should have been learned after the European elections and the party’s polling might have sunk in. Sooner or later the Labour Party, and perhaps even the Conservatives under fresh leadership, will have to face up to the fact that the only way forward for the country is to put the European question back to the people.

This House of Commons will not approve a no-deal Brexit, either as a matter of policy or by default. It will not approve Theresa May’s deal, now written off by all. A prime minister who asks the Queen to prorogue parliament, as Dominic Raab suggests, in order to frustrate MPs’ wishes, will provoke a constitutional crisis and the request would in any case by refused by the Queen – another constitutional first.

The European Union will not grant further extensions to Article 50 unless the British come up with a clear proposal to break their deadlocked politics – and that does not mean the Malthouse compromise, the Brady amendment or any of the other rescue schemes that have been tried and found wanting.

We cannot have a general election because both main parties are, in reality, terrified of a repeat of the European elections; and it would probably return another hung parliament and fail to settle anything.

And so the democratic imperative of a Final Say referendum remains. Indeed, now that Ms May’s deal is dead it makes it easier to pose the simple question of no deal or no Brexit.

We now know, as much as we can, what no deal would actually mean – World Trade Organisation terms, plus vast disruption to the economy. That is the way for any new hard Brexiteer prime minister – which covers almost all of the Tory candidates – legitimately to pursue a no-deal Brexit.

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