It’s no secret that Jeremy Corbyn’s office would really rather avoid another public vote on Brexit. It’s also strong Labour policy to avoid a crash-out Brexit at all costs. So where does that leave Labour? Essentially it forces the party to back Theresa May’s deal in one way or another.
This could be done overtly, where Corbyn and May agree to forge a deal together to present to the EU. That takes time and leaves Labour also carrying the can for Brexit. Alternatively, Labour could whip against Theresa May’s deal as is, knowing a chosen band of Labour MPs will back Theresa May’s deal. That way, Labour opposes the bad deal, the Brexit vote is honoured and the Tories carry the blame for it. The rebel MPs will receive fiery backlash, of course – but Corbyn could then later do a forgiveness tour of the Labour MPs who broke the whip, explaining to the CLPs that he understands how those MPs had to answer to their constituents.
However, this strategy has some deep flaws as it falls into no less than two Tory traps.
The first is more predictable: It’s simply that this is what the Tories want to happen. I know for a fact that anxious Tory MPs have been reassured that if they can just get Brexit over the line, the Labour Party will likely split. That increasingly looks true – and this Labour strategy would make that much more likely. For a start, the strategy is hardly a secret. Simply everyone is talking about it amongst the cognoscenti. It’s such a problem already that, even if Labour MPs tipping May’s deal into victory were to happen by accident not design, the idea is already out of the bag and it gives those Labour centrists every bit of fuel they need. They will just claim it was Corbyn’s nudge-and-wink and vast swathes of Labour’s base will believe them and scream betrayal.
The second trap is more serious, as it is a genuinely well-laid trap. The Tory ERG still control May – and they want a no-deal Brexit in order to immediately invoke emergency measures, engage extreme deregulation and sign a ready-prepped deal with Trump. They are now lining up behind May. Why? The Gove plan, of course. If the ERG cannot get out on a no-deal Brexit, then they need a deal just to get out. After which, they can just rip up all agreements and have their no-deal Brexit anyway. They’ve already excitedly stated this as an option, but then went suspiciously quiet on it. “You can make and unmake treaties. Treaties can be unmade”, said James Cleverly to The Telegraph in August, reassuring readers that trade deal planned with Donald Trump could break any standards agreed with our European partners as needed. What’s to stop them?
So signing a deal becomes a path for no-deal Brexit. Labour should want no part of that. All manner of excuses can be found to rip up treaties when out. It just takes some false accusations and jingoism. If you’re thinking “good, the public will roast the Tories if they do that”, then you’re dangerously wrong. Economic depression and hostile exchanges with neighbouring countries are not fertile ground for “kinder, gentler politics”. It’s industrial-strength catnip for far-right politics. With our government engaged in that, supported by a subservient, spineless BBC and a horrendous suite of well-funded Tory-UKIP pro-Brexit Facebook pages braying hate, we have a dire situation for Labour.
So deal vs no-deal is a death spiral for Labour. The only way to kick out of it is a general election or new public vote on Brexit. The latter, despite the fires to walk through, contains within it a golden opportunity for Labour. If the public backs a Brexit deal, or no-deal Brexit, then the same mess returns to the Tory government with less time. No material loss for Labour. However, if the public backs ditching Brexit, then the Tory government collapses like a house of cards. They no longer have the glue of Brexit to hold the DUP and Tories together. They cannot govern. More overt bribes just won’t work. Also, they’ll have their toy taken away – after it has been trashed by Labour MPs and the public alike. With no Brexit, the Tories have wasted 3 years with no solutions to burning problems and no capacity to govern. THAT is Labour’s opportunity to sweep into the wreckage with inspiring solutions to all the problems that tired Tory Brexit could never fix.