Brexit: What next for Labour?

Tom Hamilton

Tom Hamilton is an Associate Director in MHP’s Public Affairs team. He is former head of policy to Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson and a Labour staffer for ten years. He examines the options for Labour following the Government’s record defeat on the meaningful vote.

If Theresa May’s Brexit strategy for the last few months has involved kicking the can down the road, so has Jeremy Corbyn’s – but he is kicking a different can.

Corbyn’s most important political objective is not to stop Brexit, but to become Prime Minister. And he knows that he may be able to do one or the other, but not both. Stopping Brexit, or backing a second referendum, might be popular among Labour supporters, and even among a majority of Labour voters, but it threatens Labour’s ability to win a general election (or even if it doesn’t, Corbyn and his closest advisors sincerely believe it does).

For months now, the Conservatives have been repeating the claim that Labour wants a second referendum – even though this is categorically untrue.

If you want to know what a party’s biggest weakness is, look at what its opponents say about it; and if you want to know what a party should avoid doing, look at what its opponents want it to do. For months now, the Conservatives have been repeating the claim that Labour wants a second referendum – even though this is categorically untrue. That helps to explain why Corbyn has been so reluctant to back a so-called People’s Vote.

It is no secret that Jeremy Corbyn is a long-standing eurosceptic, but this is not the same as saying that his euroscepticism is motivating his Brexit policy. It would be more accurate to say that his Brexit policy is not motivated by a strong desire to remain in the EU. The UK really did vote to leave the EU, after all, and deciding not to honour that vote would be a big call for any prospective Prime Minister to make.

Leading a pro-Remain party with a pro-Brexit policy causes tensions, but to most Labour members Brexit is a second-order issue. We know this because, according to recent polling, 72% of Labour members support a second referendum, and yet 65% of them think that Corbyn is doing a good job.

If Brexit were their main concern, Corbyn’s popularity among Labour members would fall – but in fact the members like him, strongly share his values and support his programme for government. There is no appetite at all for a change of leader. (Brexit is a second-order issue for the wider electorate too: 48% voted Remain in 2016, and yet consistently in opinion polls around 80% say they will vote for either Labour or the Conservatives, both of whom are committed to leaving the EU. Poor old Liberal Democrats.)

Labour’s Brexit policy, agreed at last year’s Conference, has been much misunderstood – sometimes by people with a strong incentive to misunderstand it – but it is very simple. It is sequenced: 1) oppose May’s deal; 2) if May’s deal fails to get through Parliament, seek a general election; 3) if and only if that fails, keep all other options on the table, including a second referendum (the party isn’t committed to a second referendum in these circumstances, just to considering it as an option).

Steps 1 and 2 are the easy bits; step 3 is the bit that divides the party, and so it has been in Corbyn’s interests to stay at step 1. But this week, after a long period of holding the line, the bottom step has spectacularly disintegrated, with the biggest government defeat on record. The task now is to stay on step 2 – trying to force a general election – for as long as possible.

This is why Labour’s probable failure to win a no confidence vote will not automatically move the Party to the next stage. It is more likely that Jeremy Corbyn will continue to call no confidence votes, as Margaret Thatcher did six times against the Labour government between 1976 and 1979. “In due course”, Corbyn’s spokesman said last night, “they will fail.”

After all, even if Theresa May retains the support of the DUP for now, it is not at all clear that any solution can simultaneously get a majority of the House of Commons and keep the DUP on board. It could be that the price of avoiding no deal is no confidence.