Cor­byn must fi­nally show lead­er­ship on Eu­rope

The Observer - - News -

‘Both the prime min­is­ter and the leader of the op­po­si­tion are en­gaged in a dan­ger­ous game of brinkman­ship’

Bwith ri­tain has rarely been in more des­per­ate need of courage and di­rec­tion from the leader of the op­po­si­tion. In just un­der 11 weeks, un­less MPs have co­a­lesced around an­other op­tion, the coun­try will crash out of the Euro­pean Union,

cat­a­strophic con­se­quences for the union, the econ­omy and its global in­flu­ence.

There is, how­ever, a win­dow of op­por­tu­nity, cre­ated by a cab­i­net and Tory party more riven than ever by di­vi­sions over Eu­rope, for Labour to shape the UK’s fu­ture from the op­po­si­tion benches. Sel­dom do op­po­si­tion par­ties have as much power to pre­vent dam­age to the lives of mil­lions of their vot­ers. Even more sel­dom do they squan­der it in the way Jeremy Cor­byn has so far.

Five weeks have passed since Theresa May post­poned the par­lia­men­tary vote on her with­drawal deal. That’s five valu­able weeks dur­ing which MPs could have shaped what hap­pens next. In fact, the only thing that has changed in that time is that May’s chances of get­ting her deal through have in­creased. Her strat­egy is clear: to leave no deal, de­spite all its ru­inous ef­fects, on the ta­ble and let the clock run down un­til the only choice MPs face is a bi­nary one be­tween her deal and no deal.

The per­son with the great­est power to thwart May is Cor­byn. In re­cent weeks, we have seen back­bench lead­er­ship from both sides of the Com­mons, which, to­gether with a Speaker who has cham­pi­oned the rights of MPs over the ex­ec­u­tive, has re­sulted in some im­por­tant pro­ce­dural wins in terms of how the next few weeks will un­fold. But there re­mains no par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity in favour of any one op­tion. While these pro­ce­dural wins are not in­signif­i­cant, they are not suf­fi­cient to push the gov­ern­ment on to a dif­fer­ent course. It is dif­fi­cult to en­vis­age how a group of cross­party MPs, led by back­benchers, could hold to­gether a Com­mons ma­jor­ity out­side the party sys­tem for the weeks, if not months, that would be re­quired.

This is why op­po­si­tion lead­er­ship, in the face of a weak and di­vided cab­i­net, has never been so crit­i­cal: the only way to force the gov­ern­ment to change di­rec­tion is through party lead­er­ship and whip­ping MPs be­hind an al­ter­na­tive po­si­tion. Yet the truth is that Labour’s cur­rent ap­proach – that it wants a man­date via a gen­eral elec­tion to ne­go­ti­ate a bet­ter with­drawal deal – is just as ir­re­spon­si­ble as the gov­ern­ment’s. There is no re­al­is­tic route to a gen­eral elec­tion; May’s DUP coali­tion part­ners and her Euroscep­tic MPs may not sup­port her deal, but nei­ther will they vote to trig­ger a gen­eral elec­tion. The Labour lead­er­ship’s pre­tence that they can ne­go­ti­ate a Brexit that main­tains the “ex­act same” ben­e­fits of EU mem­ber­ship while cur­tail­ing free­dom of move­ment is sheer fan­tasy.

Labour must move to sup­port a ref­er­en­dum as soon as she loses the vote on her deal this week, if nec­es­sary via the no con­fi­dence vote it will surely lose. As we have long ar­gued, a ref­er­en­dum on the deal ver­sus the sta­tus quo is right in prin­ci­ple; the 2016 ref­er­en­dum pro­vided a nar­row man­date for the gov­ern­ment to ne­go­ti­ate the best deal it could, not a blank cheque for it to take Bri­tain out of the EU any way it saw fit, re­gard­less of the costs. The with­drawal agree­ment that May has ne­go­ti­ated per­fectly high­lights the Brexit co­nun­drum: there is no deal that lives up to the il­lu­sory uni­corn the Leave cam­paign promised vot­ers. There are painful trade-offs and it is up to vot­ers to de­cide if they want to make them.

Prin­ci­ple aside, a ref­er­en­dum is the only prac­ti­cal al­ter­na­tive Labour can swing be­hind. The grid­lock in par­lia­ment only strength­ens a prag­matic case for putting the deal to vot­ers. A “Nor­way plus” Brexit, the other op­tion be­ing talked up, may be the best of all the Brexit op­tions, but it in­volves Bri­tain sac­ri­fic­ing any say over the rules of the club in which we will ef­fec­tively re­main a mem­ber. It will not set­tle the Euro­pean ques­tion; if any­thing, hav­ing to live by rules set by Eu­rope that we have no in­flu­ence over will give suc­cour to those Euroscep­tics who will cam­paign to take us fur­ther out of Eu­rope and will heighten pub­lic hos­til­ity to the EU. More­over, it is dif­fi­cult to see how Labour can en­sure this out­come be­fore Brexit hap­pens on a prac­ti­cal level. Even if the po­lit­i­cal dec­la­ra­tion were re­drafted to in­di­cate a Nor­way-style fi­nal des­ti­na­tion, it would not be bind­ing on any Bri­tish prime min­is­ter.

The longer Cor­byn puts off back­ing a ref­er­en­dum, the more he cre­ates the im­pres­sion that he is sim­ply let­ting the clock run down in or­der to avoid mak­ing a de­ci­sion, in the hope that vot­ers will blame Con­ser­va­tives for any Brexit fi­asco. But if Labour en­ables May’s Brexit, his­tory will not for­give the party. Vot­ers will rightly hold the whole po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment ac­count­able for a with­drawal deal that will in­evitably make Bri­tain into a rule-taker, jeop­ar­dise the union and make peo­ple poorer.

Some have made the case that we should avoid an­other ref­er­en­dum as it will be di­vi­sive, but we should be wary of these ar­gu­ments. There are in­deed risks as­so­ci­ated with an­other ref­er­en­dum, but ev­ery path fac­ing Bri­tain at this junc­ture in­volves con­sid­er­able risk of pop­u­lar back­lash. Our po­lit­i­cal dis­course has al­ready de­te­ri­o­rated and a tiny mi­nor­ity with hate­ful views has be­come em­bold­ened to the ex­tent that MPs go­ing about their daily jobs now get in­tim­i­dated, ha­rassed and called “Nazi” by thugs in the street.

But what sort of re­sponse is it for a cab­i­net min­is­ter to warn MPs they must back the prime min­is­ter or risk un­leash­ing a wave of neo-Nazi ex­trem­ism, as Chris Grayling did on Fri­day? Since when has it been ac­cept­able for the gov­ern­ment to im­ply ex­trem­ist vi­o­lence is an ef­fec­tive way to bring about change, by pub­licly telling MPs they should vote out of fear of neo-Nazis rather than based on what is right for their con­stituents? Grayling’s in­sin­u­a­tion that Bri­tain can­not bear an­other ref­er­en­dum with­out de­scend­ing into civil con­flict is ir­re­spon­si­ble and pa­tro­n­is­ing.

Both the prime min­is­ter and the leader of the op­po­si­tion are en­gaged in a dan­ger­ous game of brinkman­ship. The longer it goes on, the more cer­tain its con­clu­sion be­comes: a Brexit that could split the union and sharpen the in­equal­i­ties and re­sent­ments be­tween the rich­est and poor­est parts of the coun­try. Cor­byn faces a choice: he can help pre­vent it or he can go down in his­tory as hav­ing been en­tirely com­plicit in mak­ing this tragedy hap­pen.

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