May and Cor­byn could be po­ten­tial Brexit al­lies. But they can­not co­op­er­ate

The Guardian - Journal - - News -

Last au­tumn, Jeremy Cor­byn told the Labour con­fer­ence in Liver­pool that he wanted to reach out to Theresa

May. Brexit, he told the del­e­gates, was about the vi­tal in­ter­ests of the coun­try, not about par­ti­san squab­bles or pos­tur­ing. Ad­dress­ing the prime min­is­ter di­rectly, he said: “If you de­liver a deal that in­cludes a cus­toms union and no hard bor­der in Ire­land, if you pro­tect jobs, peo­ple’s rights at work and en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards – then we will sup­port that sen­si­ble deal.”

It was a kind of Brexit olive branch from the Labour leader. At the time, how­ever, it felt fairly mean­ing­less be­cause it was not likely to be put to the test and be­cause the Labour rank and file is over­whelm­ingly op­posed to Brexit. More im­por­tantly, for the whole of the pre­vi­ous two years, Mrs May had made no effort whatever to reach out to Labour with some kind of

Brexit com­pro­mise. On the con­trary. All her en­er­gies had been de­voted to ap­peas­ing the Con­ser­va­tive party’s Brexit hard­lin­ers. Right up to late 2018, when Mrs May struck her deal with the EU and be­gan the effort to win par­lia­ment’s back­ing, the prime min­is­ter took Labour’s leader, its MPs and its voters all for granted.

Now, that has be­gun to change. As she stares de­feat for her Brexit deal in the face next week, Mrs May has fi­nally ac­cepted that she will need some Labour sup­port if she is to pre­vail. This week, she met an all-party group of MPs who want to stop a no-deal exit. In the past 48 hours, min­is­ters have also made clear that they will ac­cept a pro-work­ers’ rights amend­ment, put for­ward by four Labour MPs from pre­dom­i­nantly leave con­stituen­cies, to next week’s mo­tion. Some reach­ing out is tak­ing place. But it is all eleventh-hour stuff.

The amend­ment is also ex­tremely thin. It en­dorses part of Novem­ber’s EU-UK po­lit­i­cal dec­la­ra­tion on fu­ture re­la­tions in favour of eco­nomic reg­u­la­tion. It says Brexit must not “re­sult in any low­er­ing” of ex­ist­ing com­mon stan­dards on en­vi­ron­men­tal, em­ploy­ment and safety is­sues. And it says par­lia­ment must “con­sider” any sub­se­quent mea­sures from the EU that strengthen those rights.

This is a soggy for­mu­la­tion for mat­ters of such im­por­tance. The po­lit­i­cal dec­la­ra­tion, at which this amend­ment is aimed, is merely as­pi­ra­tional at present. It will only be­come bind­ing if the Brexit tran­si­tion ne­go­ti­a­tions, which have not be­gun yet, suc­ceed – which is far from cer­tain. So the amend­ment se­cures no bind­ing guar­an­tees to main­tain ex­ist­ing stan­dards or to keep pace with fu­ture ones. Work­place rights de­serve to be treated more se­ri­ously than this.

More­over, al­though Mrs May has some­times talked a bet­ter game on work­ers’ rights than many of her pre­de­ces­sors, the Tory party’s post-Thatcher fail­ure to treat trade unions as stake­holder part­ners means the foun­da­tions for trust are thin, too. Mrs May phoned some union lead­ers yes­ter­day. But she could have been do­ing that for two years and more.

All this gave Mr Cor­byn cover to dis­miss the work­ers’ rights amend­ment yes­ter­day at the end of a gen­er­ally un­re­veal­ing speech in which he re­it­er­ated that Labour will vote against the govern­ment next week. This is a strange sit­u­a­tion. The two lead­ers are po­ten­tial al­lies who refuse to co­op­er­ate. Like Mrs

May, but un­like most of his party, Mr Cor­byn does not want a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum. He says he wants to reach out to her on is­sues in­clud­ing work­ers’ rights. Mrs May, very be­lat­edly, is try­ing to reach out, too. But un­less there is more go­ing on than is ac­knowl­edged, the two are talk­ing at, not with, each other. Brexit is not just a po­ten­tial dis­as­ter. It is a po­ten­tial dis­as­ter that is be­ing pur­sued with un­wit­ting in­ep­ti­tude.

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