Yesterday evening, Theresa May stood in front of the lectern at Downing Street and effectively said ‘help me Jeremy Corbyn, you’re my only hope’. Desperate to get some form of deal through Parliament, and with her colleagues deserting her, she thinks the only way forward is to replace Conservative votes with Labour ones.
At first glance this looks like a good offer for Corbyn, as he can portray himself as working in the national interest and get the Brexit he has always wanted. However, whilst I doubt it is a trap – I don’t think May operates in that way – when Brexit goes wrong he could find himself sharing the blame. That’s not an enviable position for someone who is so unpopular that he trails Theresa May in the polls.
Some key questions also spring to mind from this offer. First, can Corbyn take his party with him? Like the Conservatives, Labour is bitterly divided over Brexit, with a full range of views represented including no deal, May’s deal, a modified deal, a second referendum and revocation of the notification under Article 50. Assuming other MPs continue to vote the same way, Corbyn would only need to persuade 30 Labour MPs to back a modified deal to get it over the line. However, I expect some Conservative MPs would vote down any deal associated with Corbyn, so Labour would have to produce more votes to cancel out those lost.
Second, will Corbyn insist that any revised deal is subject to a confirmatory referendum? To date Labour’s support for a second referendum has been mixed, with initial resistance gradually turning into whipping in favour of the relevant indicative vote. However, several senior Labour MPs have gone on the record stating that their priority is to secure a good deal, and have explicitly said that they would shy away from a second referendum on a deal which had their input.
Third, how will any agreed deal affect the outcome for the two main parties in the general election which seems likely for later this year? Both will be able to claim to have ‘delivered Brexit’, but whether that is an asset or a liability is open to question. Will they gain votes from Leavers but lose them from Remainers? Where can Remainers turn to if they live in a Con/Lab marginal – as I do?
The interesting thing about May’s offer, like the indicative votes, is that it forces Labour to spell out exactly what its Brexit plan is. To date we have had vague slogans such as a ‘jobs-first Brexit’ (unachievable – Brexit has already cost jobs) and five tests (anyone remember the five tests for joining the euro?), but no concrete plan. Labour have got away with this so far because they were not in a position to negotiate with the EU, but now they will have to decide exactly what they do want.
As always, there are a lot of ifs and buts involved in this process, including:
- The EU has to agree to offer the UK an extension, which might include holding elections for the EU parliament.
- May and Corbyn have to agree a deal between them.
- The new deal has to be accepted by both the EU and the UK Parliaments.
- The new deal might be subject to a referendum, though I think this is unlikely.
Overall, May’s offer adds another option into an already complicated situation. It may turn out to be a way to get a compromise softer Brexit through Parliament, though at what cost to the parties and the country remains to be seen. Based on this new information, I think the most likely options are either a softer Brexit, pushed through with the help of Labour, or no deal. Revocation and a second referendum are dead in the water, so the most Remainers can hope for is a deal which provides a platform to re-join the EU at a later date, once everyone has seen the real damage of Brexit.