I am writing this as Members of Parliament are gathered in Westminster, on the first Saturday since the Falklands conflict of 1982, for yet another “make or break” day of reckoning on Brexit. MPs have just voted narrowly to pass Oliver Letwin’s amendment, delaying a decision on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal and compelling him to request an extension of Article 50.
I’m a Labour man who voted wholeheartedly for Remain in 2016, but unlike many of my relatives and friends I’m not on the People’s Vote march today. If I was a Labour MP I might even cross my fingers, pinch my nose, and vote for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
Why? Media coverage of Brexit tends to assume that the British electorate fall into three categories: ardent Remainers, ardent Leavers, and “repentant Leavers” who are now persuaded that the UK should stay in the EU, or at least that there should be a second referendum. But there is also a sizeable fourth category, whose views are rarely aired: those who voted remain, often for purely pragmatic reasons, but who now think the least worst option is an orderly Brexit, with a deal. Living in the east Midlands I come across people like these quite frequently, but although polling is beginning to identify them their voices are seldom heard in the media.
It is in this fourth category that I now find myself. I have never had any sympathy with ‘Lexiteers’, with their hackneyed prejudices against the EU for being a neo-liberal ‘bosses club’. Membership of the EU has been unquestionably good for Britain, and I deplore the little-England xenophobia, and in some cases outright racism, of the right-wing Brexiteers. In an ideal world, I wish that no referendum on EU membership had taken place in the first place. There was, after all, no groundswell of public demand for one prior to 2016. David Cameron only called a referendum to appease UKIP and the Eurosceptic right of the Tory party. A stronger leader would have resisted their pressure.
But rightly or wrongly a referendum did take place, and three of the four biggest parties fought the 2017 election on manifestos that committed them to respecting its result (it is often forgotten that even the Lib Dems’ manifesto stopped short of pledging to halt Brexit outright, pledging only to fight to stop a ‘Hard Brexit’). Those calling for a second referendum, or the cancellation of Brexit without one, are deluded if they think that the Pandora’s Box that Brexit has opened can be easily closed. I have yet to hear any convincing reply from those backing a second referendum about how a Remain win won’t simply prompt calls from Leavers for a third ‘best of three’ referendum.
As we face a Brexit deal that waters down commitments on worker’s rights and environmental protection, and erects a complicated customs arrangement in Northern Ireland, you have to wonder why Labour and the Lib Dems were so strongly opposed to the deal that Theresa May brought back from Brussels in December 2018. Behind all the bluster, Labour’s reasons for opposing it were very flimsy indeed: objections to the length of a transition period, quibbles about the lack of specific guarantees about our membership of Europol, and even a gripe that only 10 pages of the 26-page ‘outline political declaration’ talked of Britain’s future economic relationship with the EU, and that there was not enough about the services sector. These technical, bureaucratic objections were cobbled together, but in reality May’s deal passed most, if not all, of Labour’s tests. If only May had been better at reaching out to other parties to sell it, and if only Labour had been brave enough to give it their support.
In January 2019, when Theresa May’s deal went before MPs for the first time, just four Labour MPs – Ian Austin, Kevin Barron, John Mann and Frank Field (technically an independent) – voted for May’s deal, along with one maverick Lib Dem, Stephen Lloyd. When it came before MPs a second time in March, just one extra Labour MP – Caroline Flint – supported May’s deal. At the third and final vote a couple of weeks later, another two – Rosie Cooper and Jim Fitzpatrick – added their support.
This afternoon seven more Labour MPs – Ronnie Campbell, Sarah Champion, Kate Hoey, Lindsay Hoyle, Melanie Onn, Derek Twigg and Rosie Winterton – have in effect backed Johnson’s deal by opposing the Letwin amendment to kick Brexit into the long grass yet again. Hoey is a Eurosceptic who is increasingly out of place in the Labour party. But the others are sensible Labour MPs, most but not all of them in Leave seats, who have rightly agreed it is in Labour’s interests to move on from Brexit. It is a pity that more did not follow their lead. Instead they have fallen into Johnson’s trap.
The refusal of the Labour frontbench, blinded by partisanship, to back May’s deal, and then Johnson’s, may be understandable. Less understandable now is why many more pragmatic pro-deal Labour MPs – among them Stephen Kinnock, Lisa Nandy, Gareth Snell and Ruth Smeeth – refused to support May’s deal, given that it was so much stronger than Johnson’s in terms of regulatory alignment, workers’ rights and environmental protection.
Let’s speculate about what might have happened if Labour had called the Tories’ bluff and backed May’s deal – or a more Labour-friendly version of it – earlier this year. Of course, whipping Labour MPs’ to back a version of May’s deal could have split the Labour Party, with many strongly pro-Remain Labour MPs defying the whip, and possibly either being expelled or quitting the party voluntarily. But Labour has split anyway: many of its most ardent Remainers, such as Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger, have quit, citing anti-semitism, although Brexit was another key factor.
The delivery of May’s deal would have delivered a more serious problem for the Tories. The European Research Group’s dogmatic refusal to back May’s deal, and their refusal to countenance any cross-party talks on making the deal more Labour-friendly, suggests that had it been approved with Labour’s help, their MPs could have split with the Tories permanently, either defecting to the Brexit Party or another ‘Real Conservative’ grouping. Thus Jeremy Corbyn would have achieved what Blair, Brown and Miliband always failed to do: a permanent cleaving of the Conservative Party over Europe.
None of this would have meant that Labour would win the general election automatically. Many of Labour’s underlying handicaps – such as Corbyn’s leadership itself – predate Brexit. The Brexit debate has obscured Labour’s underlying electoral problems. Although the party got a 40% vote share in 2017, this was increasingly concentrated in big cities: across many towns in the Midlands and the North, Labour lost ground. A more centrist Conservative Party, shorn of its hard Brexiteers, may have lost its majority but might be a more appealing option for socially liberal Leavers and economically conservative Remainers, both of which are now flocking to the Lib Dems. Paradoxically, a weakening in Lib Dem support harms Labour, as most Lib Dem target seats are Tory marginals in the South-West, whose loss by the Lib Dems were a major factor behind Cameron’s victory in 2015. The weaker the Lib Dems, the greater the number of Tory MPs in Parliament.
But if Labour had backed May’s deal it would be in a much stronger position in its marginal seats in the Midlands and North, many of which voted for Leave. It would now be preparing for a general election fought on the familiar domestic territory of the NHS, education and social care – ground on which Labour normally does well. Brexit would be largely neutralised as an election issue, and Labour could plausibly claim that it has recovered its economic credibility, by working cross-party to secure a Brexit deal that minimises economic disruption.
Those who argue that Labour would have been scuppered in London, and in strongly remain southern cities like Brighton, Bristol and Oxford, forget that even with Labour’s increasingly pro-Remain stance Labour is struggling anyway in all these places, and it is still flatlining in Scotland. Even in London, one new poll has put Labour in third place behind the Tories and the Lib Dems; in Wales they are in second place behind the Tories. Some polls have even put Labour in third place nationally. On average, the Tories now have a 15% lead over Labour.
Boris Johnson is now the most popular – or the least unpopular – politician in Britain today, and rather than tailing off as with most new Prime Ministers, his popularity ratings have risen steadily since he became PM in July. Even those who don’t like Johnson personally think he is a much better leader than Jeremy Corbyn: Johnson beats Corbyn by 40% to 20% on the ‘who do you think would make the best Prime Minister?’ rating. Boris is not so much enjoying a honeymoon period as a slow-burn love affair with the British people. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn still has the lowest approval ratings of any Leader of the Opposition, ever (including Michael Foot in 1983).
Corbynistas make a lot of how much better Labour performed in 2017 than the opinion polls had predicted. They argue that Labour could do the same at the next election, and either emerge as the largest party or even win outright. But in 2017 Labour was up against Theresa May, a weak campaigner with vague promises of Brexit, not a rambunctious Boris Johnson armed with a deal that most Labour MPs will have failed to support. Having pledged in its 2017 manifesto to respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum, there is no certainty that Labour’s support will surge again this time.
All this polling suggests that the importance of Brexit may have been overstated: despite being nudged towards support for a second referendum, and campaigning for Remain if and when it occurs, Labour support has continued to plummet, and at the euro elections in May the party came third nationally.
Already Labour’s frontbench is panicking: Matthew Pennycook, an ambitious young London MP and Starmer’s deputy in the shadow Brexit team, quit last month, saying he wanted to concentrate on campaigning for a Remain Vote in a second referendum. Given that a second referendum is unlikely, I suspect that Pennycook’s real motive was to distance himself from a policy that is going nowhere.
There may be another explanation for what is happening: Labour’s support is plummeting not despite its shift towards Remain, but precisely because of it.
Whatever now happens the prospects for Labour look bleak. If Johnson gets his deal approved with a narrow majority, thanks to a handful of Labour MPs, Labour’s fixation on averting No Deal will look decidedly old hat. Although Johnson’s deal is far from perfect and the Brexit process will be far from over, the fact that a deal of any kind has been reached will be a good springboard for a Tory victory in an election, either later this autumn or early in 2020. Labour will be fraught with recriminations over why some of its MPs voted for Johnson’s Brexit deal; the Lib Dems and Brexit Party will both be becalmed, benefitting the Tories further.
If Johnson’s deal doesn’t get approved and he obeys the Benn Act by writing to the EU requesting an extension to Article 50, things hardly look much better for Labour. A snap ‘Parliament vs the People’ election would still be the Tories to lose. Labour’s policy – negotiating its own ‘credible’ Brexit deal, then asking the public to choose between that deal and remaining the EU, while campaigning for the latter – will be subjected to scrutiny that it has hitherto escaped. The general election that would inevitably follow could easily result in just as large a Tory landslide.
If Boris refuses to obey the Benn Act and tries to crash the UK out of the EU without a deal on October 31 – as seems likely now that the Letwin amendment has been passed – a constitutional crisis will ensue. But even then Labour could easily get the blame: after all the Tories could plausibly claim that had Labour followed its 2017 manifesto commitment to deliver Brexit, and not then swung behind the Benn Act, no crisis would have ever arisen. Britain will be taken onto virgin legal territory but the political territory could be all too familiar: Tory decisiveness versus Labour fudge. Labour lost too many elections between 1979 and 1992 for me to need to spell out the likely result.
The problem with Labour’s current position on Brexit is not that it’s too complicated to explain – “Let the people decide” was, after all, a successful rallying cry for those calling for a referendum prior to 2016 – but that it simply doesn’t offer what most voters want. There simply isn’t widespread support for a second referendum. The very latest polling, by Comres and ITN, shows that support for a second referendum – which has never been above 50% anyway – has started to soften, with only 41% now backing a second vote, compared to 45% opposing one. More significantly, some 50% of voters now say that their ‘preferred outcome’ is for the UK to leave the European Union, against 42% backing remain. Not only is there no strong support for a second referendum, it now looks increasingly likely that Leave could win again if one took place.
How has this come about? Remainers have been very quick to point out the dangers of a No-Deal Brexit, but very slow to explain what sort of deal they want to see, and their continual refusal to support the deals that May and Johnson have brought forward has become tiresome. Warnings about a hypothetical recession, and food and medicine shortages, are just that: hypothetical. The Government’s ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign, which has stated boldly for months that the UK is leaving the EU on October 31, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Brexit fatigue has set in, and even many Remainers now just want Brexit done and dusted. The People’s Vote campaign has “never found the right words”, argues the Guardian’s Andy Becket. “Time to move on” carries more logic than “Let the people decide”.
The media make much of the courtroom drama of Brexit – the High Court’s decision that Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was lawful, followed by the Supreme Court’s judgement that it wasn’t – but this has had little impact on public opinion. Three years of parliamentary debate and scrutiny, with three votes on Brexit deals, has got us nowhere near an outcome – either Brexit, cancelling Article 50, or even a second referendum. Most people feel there has been too much discussion of Brexit in parliament, not too little. Put simply, the British people are bored with Brexit. There is no clamouring for greater parliamentary scrutiny, and even less for a second referendum.
Johnson seems to be wining politically, if not diplomatically, and is well-placed to win an election even if Brexit is not delivered by October 31. “Like Donald Trump with the border wall with Mexico, he calculates that it is not failure that is punished by voters, but a lack of trying,” Tom McTague has argued in The Atlantic. Labour seems to have learnt little from its unsuccessful attempts to prevent Johnson from winning the London mayoralty in 2008 and 2012. Demonising Johnson as a liar, or ridiculing him as a buffoon, only plays into his hands. His real vulnerabilities lie in what he has done, not what he has said: his murky relationship with the American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri, and his calamitous waste of London taxpayer’s money on a Garden Bridge that has never been built, may yet prove to be his undoing. But, for now, the public is increasingly on Boris’s side.
“If I could have voted for it, I would have voted for it,” an angry Labour MP, Karl Turner, recently shouted at Dominic Cummings in Portcullis House. But many Labour MPs could have supported May’s deal. Faced now with Johnson’s deal, many of them must now privately realise that they should have supported it as well.