Wednesday

23rd Sep 2020

Column / Brexit Briefing

UK court ruling does little to help Brexit opponents

  • Corbyn cannot afford to alienate Labour voters who want to leave the EU (Photo: Garry Knight)

For Remain supporters clutching at straws, the ermine-clad judges of the UK’s Supreme Court brought some cheer on Tuesday (24 January).

The judgement - that Theresa May’s government cannot start divorce proceedings with the EU without the support of MPs - was not much of a triumph, however.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Nor was it a surprise. The government had made clear that it would introduce Brexit legislation if the Supreme Court ruled against it. A short bill will now be tabled this week and rushed through parliament in time for May to activate article 50 before her self-imposed March deadline.

The Liberal Democrats, the 56 Scottish National Party MPs and a couple of Tory europhiles will vote against the bill but it will almost certainly pass overwhelmingly. In the words of Brexit minister David Davis on Tuesday, “the point of no return was passed on June 23rd”.

Instead of being a major headache for May, the Article 50 bill, in fact, poses yet another problem to the centre-left opposition Labour party, which is stuck in a political no man’s land.

If May’s Conservative party is still divided on what Brexit should look like, Labour is in an impossible position.

Over 50 MPs have indicated that they will not support an Article 50 bill, even if the party leadership, whose position is currently that the referendum result must be respected, imposes a three-line whip.

At the root of Labour’s difficulty is that almost all the party’s elected officials and most of its supporters voted to remain in the EU; yet most of its constituencies, particularly in the north and midlands of England, voted to leave.

Labour cannot afford to turn its back on these voters, who are being targeted by the anti-immigrant Ukip party, by campaigning to overturn the result of last June.

So, since the June referendum, it has fudged, obfuscated and confused them instead.

The party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, whose half-hearted campaigning last spring is still regarded as an act of wilful sabotage by Labour Remainers, has made contradictory statements on the value of single market access, and flip-flopped on whether Labour still supports freedom of movement.

Everyone disappointed

As a result, Corbyn is disappointing both Leave and Remain voters. Current opinion polls put Labour on around 25 percent - 15 points behind the Conservatives. In the now unlikely event that May decides to call a snap election, Labour would be routed.

A decade ago, eurosceptics in Britain and elsewhere were easy to pigeon-hole as extremists on the political fringe. Demands for strict limits on migration flows were only made by far-right parties.

That has changed, perhaps irreversibly.

Dominic Cummings, the director of the Leave campaign, says that it is the London elite, whose general outlook of supporting open borders and markets without providing communities adversely affected by migration flows and globalisation with extra support, that is extreme.

Broadly speaking, these “elite” views have been held by Labour in government and opposition for most of the past 20 years. Disowning them would be painful.

Labour will hold a day-long Brexit conference in late-February, presumably in a bid to start cutting through the fog of confusion about its position. It is long overdue, but only the first step in a journey.

In the short term, Theresa May’s hard Brexit speech last week, making it clear that Britain will leave the single market and, in all probability, the EU customs union under her watch, has thrown Labour a potential lifeline.

Her threat that Britain could set itself up as a North Sea tax haven if EU leaders play hardball on single market access, has given Labour MPs a legitimate reason to withhold their support for an Article 50 bill.

Wait-and-see tactic

In the current climate, campaigning to overturn the referendum result is political suicide. The Brexit process is, however, at the mercy of unknown future events.

If May presents MPs with a meagre offering in two years time, and the threat of turning Britain into a deregulated tax haven is closer to reality, there will be a strong case to hold another in/out referendum.

Labour’s best chance probably lies in playing wait-and-see until the negotiating process becomes a little clearer. It is still a long shot, and does not even begin to address the party’s wider existential crisis, or how it will deal with the immigration question.

But for the moment, it might be the only way Labour can hold the line with its supporters on Europe.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Brexit men launch anti-EU website

Westmonster, modelled on hard-right US websites, said it was: "Pro-Brexit, pro-Farage, pro-Trump. Anti-establishment".

Theresa May outlines 'hard Brexit'

The British prime minister confirms that the UK will leave the single market when it leaves the EU and will seek a new trade deal.

Column / Brexit Briefing

Brexit Britain cannot rely on Trump's trade vows

Theresa May came away from her meeting with Donald Trump bearing the promise of a future UK-US trade pact. The pledge was rich in symbolism, but not much else.

News in Brief

  1. Report: Roma life expectancy '10 years lower'
  2. US corona death toll passes 200,000
  3. Greece and Turkey agree to resume talks in Istanbul
  4. Seven countries found MidEast energy forum, without Turkey
  5. Four more states join EU medical strategic stockpile
  6. Malta police arrest chief of staff of ex-PM
  7. EP pushing for effective rule-of-law mechanism
  8. France opposes return EU deficit rules after corona

How EU can help end Uighur forced labour

A recent report noted apparel and footwear as the leading exports from the Uighur region - with a combined value of $6.3bn [€5.3bn] representing over 35 percent of total exports.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council meets Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tichanovskaja
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to invest DKK 250 million in green digitalised business sector
  3. UNESDAReducing packaging waste – a huge opportunity for circularity
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOVID-19 halts the 72nd Session of the Nordic Council in Iceland
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCivil society a key player in integration
  6. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular

Latest News

  1. EU countries stuck on rule of law-budget link
  2. EU states struggle to better sync Covid-19 measures
  3. EP groups drop homophobe from Sakharov prize
  4. Legal complaint filed with EU Commission over migration
  5. Coronavirus: Will a second wave divide Europe again?
  6. Coronavirus: the Swedish model was worth emulating
  7. Time to fix Europe's broken migration and asylum system
  8. Covid-19: How is Eastern Europe bracing for a second wave?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  2. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  4. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis
  6. UNESDACircularity works, let’s all give it a chance

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us