Thursday

30th Mar 2017

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.

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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.

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