Richard Corbett: We’re running out of Brexit options. Here’s what Labour must do

Richard Corbett

Whatever happens in terms of Theresa May, general elections, and parliamentary twists and turns, we will still be faced with what to do about Brexit. If we don’t want to leave without a deal (and we don’t, for good reasons), and we also don’t want the government’s deal (also for good reasons), there are only two other possibilities:

  • negotiating a different deal
  • stopping Brexit

Let’s look at what these options entail.

Option 1: A different deal

Negotiating a different deal is theoretically possible, but a formidable challenge. The EU27 are not going to reopen the deal just to throw another bone to Tory backbenchers. They are fed up with negotiating with a divided government that took nearly two years to agree internally on what it wanted, then promptly tried to wriggle out of its commitment on the Irish border.

Persuading the EU to reopen negotiations would require the rapid emergence of a majority in parliament backing (and guaranteeing ratification of) a specific alternative that is actually workable (no Norway Plus customs union fantasies) and acceptable to the EU (no to the idea of Britain, as a non-member, having a veto on EU trade policy).

There is no sign of any such scenario at the moment – and time is running out. If there were a snap general election, a new Labour government might have a chance to put such a deal to parliament, the EU and the public. But, as we are discovering, an early general election is not easy to trigger under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act.

Even if Labour does get into the driving seat, there isn’t a Brexit deal on offer that avoids the fundamental dilemma with Brexit. Either Britain distances itself from the EU by leaving the customs union and the single market – with huge economic damage – or it stays close and has to follow the rules without any longer having a say on them. Neither option is good for Britain.

Option 2: Stopping Brexit

Legally, this is easy: Britain simply needs to withdraw its Article 50 notification and it remains as a member state, under current terms, including its existing opt-outs and rebate, and has a seat in the negotiations about the future direction of the EU. Politically, it is more difficult and no doubt requires a referendum – but this is what more and more people want, according to the polls.

Labour said that it respects the result of the 2016 referendum. This was not because we thought it was the right decision – we had, after all, campaigned to Remain in accordance with a unanimous conference decision in September 2015 – but because, as democrats, we respect the will of the people. But, as democrats, we should also be willing to check that the people still want to proceed with a Brexit that bears no resemblance to what was promised. If we want to respect the will of the people, we’d better check that it still is the will of the people.

Nothing would be more disrespectful of the public than to tell them that they had their say three years ago and must now accept whatever the government comes up with, whether or not it matches their expectations and whether or not they want a chance to reconsider.

Those who most strongly argue against another referendum seem to be those who don’t want to risk discovering that the public no longer swallows their arguments. And indeed they are right to be worried: a significant number of people who voted Leave are saying that this Brexit mess is not what they voted for.

The Leave campaign promises are coming home to roost. Far from saving money (that would all go to the NHS), Brexit is turning out to be a costly exercise. Far from securing shiny new trade deals, we are dropping out of hundreds of existing deals. Far from helping the economy, we are haemorrhaging jobs. Far from taking back control, we are lessening our ability to influence decisions and events.

According to the YouGov poll published last weekend – the biggest sample poll yet taken on the subject – the shift of opinion has never been bigger. In any new referendum:

  • Remaining in the EU would defeat May’s deal by no less than 63% to 37%
  • Remaining in would beat a no-deal Brexit by 58% to 42%

Even allowing for +/-3% opinion poll error (normally lower with such a large sample), those figures are impressive enough to show that Brexit can no longer be considered the will of the people. And the figures are even more striking for Labour voters. As Brexit is increasingly seen as a Tory project, Labour voters are now 83% against Brexit according to the same poll.

Of course, most Labour voters will vote Labour anyway and not swing just on this issue. But if we risk losing just one-tenth of those who express a view on this issue, it is worth pointing out that one tenth of 83% is 8.3% (whereas one tenth of the other 17% is just 1.7%). Not alienating Remain supporters is vital for Labour’s prospects. The YouGov poll indicated that Labour’s share of the vote would slump to 26% if it were seen to be supporting Brexit. That’s not just a calculation about potential losses – there are more gains to be made from Remainers than from Leavers.

Certainly, party members appear to back a new referendum: 86% according to YouGov. The overwhelming majority of CLP submissions to the National Policy Forum International Commission this week support it. But above all, we know what damage Brexit is already doing to our economy and to public finances (£26bn extra borrowing a year), how much worse that is likely to become – and how much that would impede a Labour government.

It is time for Labour to move through the gears of its 2018 conference resolution and support a public vote to end the Brexit catastrophe, humiliating and hopefully sinking this Tory government.

Richard Corbett is a Labour MEP for Yorkshire & Humber and leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party.

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