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