Labour’s crunch time is here. Hol­low talk will no longer do

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Jonathan Freed­land,

Nor­mally, an op­po­si­tion could en­joy a week like the one that’s com­ing. It could sit back, re­lax and break open the pop­corn as Theresa May walks into a Com­mons de­feat on the pol­icy that has de­fined her premier­ship. It could de­light in yet more days of de­bate in which next to no one on the prime minister’s own benches rises to speak up for her, savour­ing the sight of a govern­ing party that is de­vour­ing it­self in full pub­lic view.

But these are not nor­mal times. For one thing, the stakes are too high. It isn’t just a reg­u­lar piece of do­mes­tic leg­is­la­tion that the gov­ern­ment is founder­ing on, but the most im­por­tant – and po­ten­tially most dam­ag­ing – move in the coun­try’s post­war his­tory. Labour can­not be pas­sive in this process, giv­ing the gov­ern­ment enough rope to hang it­self. Be­cause if this goes wrong, it’s not just May’s ca­reer or the Tories’ elec­toral prospects that are wrecked: it’s the coun­try.

It’s not only an ab­stract sense of na­tional duty that should be weigh­ing on Labour: the more con­crete fact is that in a hung par­lia­ment, an op­po­si­tion has gen­uine power. With a sub­stan­tial num­ber of Con­ser­va­tives hav­ing slipped the bonds of party loy­alty, ready to vote with the op­po­si­tion if they have to, Labour can shape the course of Brexit. The down­side is that if this goes badly, it won’t be just be May and the Tories who are blamed: Jeremy Cor­byn and Labour will be in the dock, too.

All of which means the era of “con­struc­tive am­bi­gu­ity” has to end next week. Maybe it worked for a while, this Labour blend of re­main and leave, word­ing ev­ery pro­nounce­ment on Brexit in lan­guage bland enough to go down eas­ily in both Hamp­stead and Hartle­pool. But that fudge is past its sell-by date. We are at the mo­ment of de­ci­sion now.

Not that you’d know it from the noises the party is still mak­ing. Take the ar­ti­cle on these pages yesterday by Cor­byn him­self. It spoke re­peat­edly of Labour’s “al­ter­na­tive plan” for Brexit, by which Bri­tain would have all the ben­e­fits of the sin­gle mar­ket – such as “fric­tion­less trade” – with none of the costs. This is a plan in the same sense that I “plan” to win the men’s sin­gles ti­tle at Wim­ble­don next year. It is not a plan at all, but a de­sire for some­thing that is demon­stra­bly out of reach.

The EU could not have been clearer or more un­bend­ing on this point since the vote in 2016 (and long be­fore). The only way to get fric­tion­less trade with the sin­gle mar­ket is not by forg­ing “a new and strong re­la­tion­ship” with it, as Cor­byn writes, but by be­ing in it, as we are now. Equally, you can­not hope to leave the EU and si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­tain “a Bri­tish say in fu­ture trade deals” done by the EU. To ar­gue other­wise is to of­fer the same cake-and-eat-it, uni­corn-filled im­pos­si­bil­ism ped­dled by Boris Johnson and Ja­cob Rees-Mogg. That it comes with a red rosette on its lapel does not make it any less dis­hon­est. Which is why even one of Cor­byn’s most se­nior shadow cab­i­net col­leagues told me the leader’s ar­ti­cle was “poor”, while its cen­tral claim – that there is some new, al­ter­na­tive, back­stop-free deal just wait­ing to be ne­go­ti­ated with Brus­sels by Labour – is “non­sense”.

To my mind that hope was al­ways ab­surd, its im­pos­si­bil­ity cap­tured by that meme of May on the phone, cap­tioned: “Hello, is that Sky? Yes, I’d like to can­cel my sub­scrip­tion but still re­ceive all your chan­nels.” Shadow min­is­ters ad­mit that is even more unar­guably true now. Be­yond “some tweaks to the po­lit­i­cal dec­la­ra­tion”, there is noth­ing more the EU would of­fer a freshly in­stalled Labour gov­ern­ment, even if, as Shami Chakrabarti in­sists, “there’s such a pos­i­tive at­mos­phere” the mo­ment Cor­byn walks into a room of Euro­pean lead­ers. The EU27 are not go­ing to pre­tend the last two years didn’t hap­pen and start all over again.

Which is why the first move Labour prom­ises to make, once May’s deal is voted down, is also hol­low. It will call for a gen­eral elec­tion, ar­gu­ing that that is the most le­git­i­mate way for the coun­try to re­solve its Brexit co­nun­drum. But how would an elec­tion re­solve it ex­actly? If Labour sim­ply of­fers an im­pos­si­ble al­ter­na­tive to the May deal – a painfree, “jobs first” Brexit in which we get all the plea­sures of EU mem­ber­ship and none of the pain – then even if Labour were to win, the ques­tion would not be set­tled, be­cause it would be as un­able to de­liver its Brexit as May was hers.

That leaves two op­tions: Nor­way-plus or a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum. Labour won’t be able to ob­fus­cate its way through that choice for long, though it might try. So far the sig­nals from Labour’s top ta­ble are hos­tile to Nor­way: be­cause it would make Bri­tain a rule-taker and, though they don’t like to say this too loudly lest it sound as if they’re anti-im­mi­gra­tion, be­cause it would com­mit Bri­tain to free­dom of move­ment. So a peo­ple’s vote could be the last op­tion stand­ing. Af­ter many months, Keir Starmer and John McDon­nell now seem to agree on that, backed by Tom Wat­son. Ranged against them are Unite’s Len McCluskey and the leader’s of­fice. Cor­byn him­self is said by one in­sider, who is not hos­tile to the leader, to be “pretty dis­en­gaged”.

If Labour does end up call­ing for a peo­ple’s vote and get­ting it, plenty will praise the party for its strate­gic acu­men. It will have played the long game, kept Labour leavers on­side at the 2017 gen­eral elec­tion and picked the right mo­ment to make its move. But then there will be a new ques­tion: how to win that sec­ond ref­er­en­dum for re­main? How much eas­ier would that task have been if Labour had spent the last two and a half years ex­pos­ing the Brex­i­teers’ pro­ject as the im­pos­si­ble fan­tasy it is – rather than in­dulging it, ac­com­mo­dat­ing it and even echo­ing it, right un­til the very last mo­ment?

Cake-and-eat-it, uni­corn-filled im­pos­si­bil­ism is no less dis­hon­est when it comes with a red rosette on its lapel


Keir Starmer and Jeremy Cor­byn in Brus­sels, July 2017

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