Tuesday

18th Feb 2020

Column / Brexit Briefing

Tories on manoeuvres, as Labour wakes from Brexit slumber

  • Despite a mini-poll revival, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is still 15 points behind Theresa May's Conservatives. (Photo: Matthew Kirby)

Despite spending the past month picking fights with the rest of Europe, Theresa May wants as soft a Brexit as possible.

Two weeks after the "Dinnergate" leaks, you might well scoff at this, especially since a survey released earlier this week suggested that 8 out of 10 Conservative supporters genuinely believe that the EU is interfering in the UK election – statistics that demonstrate the parallel political universes in Britain and continental Europe.

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Yet a prevailing school of thought among pundits is that a larger majority will make it easier for Theresa May to face down the hardest eurosceptics in her party. There is some evidence to support this.

The silk-tongued career Brexiteer Dan Hannan – a darling of the party membership – had been lined up for the Aldershot constituency only to be vetoed by Conservative Head Office.

For his part, Syed Kamall, who leads the Conservative and Reformist group in the European Parliament, has failed to secure selection, as has fellow Brexiteer David Campbell-Bannerman, who was also blocked by Conservative HQ.

Vicky Ford, a Remain supporting MEP who chairs the European Parliament’s internal market committee, was selected for a safe seat last week. Andrew Lewer is the only Brexiteer MEP likely to join Ford in Westminster.

David Cameron - remember him? - broke his post-premiership self-imposed vow of silence on Thursday (11 May) to reinforce this argument.

"It's so important... that the Conservatives win and win well, so Theresa can negotiate that Brexit deal, so she can stand up to people who want an extreme Brexit either here or in Brussels," he said.

For the moment, it’s impossible to test this theory, which may well be wishful thinking by former Remainers. May’s approach to the election campaign is to say as little as possible on policy, making the vote a personal referendum on her leadership.

Conspiracy theories

While the Conservatives proceed with caution and rigid discipline, the opposition Labour party appears to have woken from its slumber, prematurely releasing a 40-page manifesto that, if nothing else, has given political observers a reason to talk and write about them again.

There are a number of conspiracy theories as to why the policy document was leaked to London’s press a week before its planned publication. Most likely is that aides to the party’s left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn wanted to bounce the party’s right – who want to oust him – into supporting the manifesto, which critics are dubbing the most radical in a generation.

The promises to abolish university tuition fees, create a National Investment Bank to boost infrastructure investment, re-nationalise the railways and increase the minimum wage to £10 (€12) an hour, are certainly left-wing, but are light years away from the Marxist dystopia described in the right-wing print media.

If nothing else, however, the Labour official who leaked ensured that the policy pledges got blanket coverage.

On Brexit, Labour claims there will be no second referendum (probably), and promises a deal with the EU that would involve a form of associate membership – with the UK remaining part of the EU’s single market and the customs union, the Erasmus student exchange programme, and a handful of agencies including Europol and the European Medicine’s Agency, which is based in London.

Labour also says it will protect EU funding across the UK, guarantee worker's rights contained in the Social Chapter and drop the Conservative’s Great Repeal Bill aiming at salami slicing the EU laws it doesn’t like.

Over the cliff-edge

Sensibly, it rejects Theresa May’s notion of a "no deal" Brexit, insisting that a transitional deal will have to be struck if the UK is to leave at the end of the talks in spring 2019.

May’s threat to leave the EU empty handed if necessary, carrying the UK economy over the cliff-edge in the process, is a bizarre tactic, akin to holding a gun to your head and threatening to pull the trigger.

Getting to this point has been painful for Labour. One amendment already secured to the leaked version is tougher language on immigration, to guarantee that ‘freedom of movement’ would end under a Labour government – a concession to the party’s core supporters in northern England and Wales.

Whether this balancing act is enough to appease angry metropolitan Remainers in big cities like London and Manchester, and the UK’s university towns, is unclear. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party will go into the election as the only parties committed to defying the June referendum. For the moment, it’s as far as Labour can go.

Even so, Tories are unlikely to be losing much sleep. Despite a mini-poll revival, Corbyn’s Labour is still 15 points behind May.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

Disclaimer

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

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