Theresa May’s Brexit mess shows that the whole Brexit business is a nonsense. Labour should say that.
Labour should campaign for an immediate putting-back of the Brexit date, an early general election, and an incoming Labour government to hold a “people’s vote” to abandon Brexit.
Whatever the hopes in June 2016 made a slight majority of a rigged electorate (excluding EU citizens settled here, who vote in local government elections, and 16-17 year olds) opt for Brexit, the reality is different.
Few people like what May has negotiated: a 69%-17% majority, in a poll taken on 19-20 November, thought the negotiations had gone badly.
Even fewer like the Tory right’s ill-defined “harder” Brexit formulas, or a “no deal” Brexit that would see motorways turned into lorry parks and food and medical supplies running short.
Every actual, real, hard fact Brexit formula is unpopular.
Since the June 2016 referendum has happened, with all its problems, a new referendum will be needed to stop Brexit. There is nothing undemocratic about that. Democracy includes minorities always having the chance to argue and become the majority.
The problem is: what is Labour saying?
If Labour MPs hold firm, then — for their own reasons — right-wing Tory rebels and the diehard Protestant Democratic Unionist Party MPs from Northern Ireland will make it impossible for prime minister Theresa May to get her Brexit deal through Parliament.
To force an early general election is harder under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011, but can be done if the House of Commons votes no confidence in the government twice in 14 days.
The Tory rebels are unlikely to vote that way. The DUP, not so unlikely. The DUP are right-wing, but have less risk of losing seats in an early general election, and won’t mind a Corbyn government if it promises common economic regulations for Northern Ireland and England and more cash for the Northern Ireland budget.
There are many other possibilities. The Tories may push through some fudged, amended, 11th or 13th-hour version of their Brexit formula. But an early general election is a real possibility if Labour stands firm.
The question is, what will Labour say? What is Labour saying now, as the Government stumbles?
Labour shadow minister Richard Burgon told the BBC on 21 November: “We are not attempting to stop Brexit”. On 18 November Jeremy Corbyn told Sky News: “Brexit has been triggered... We voted for Article 50 [the formal application for Brexit]... We couldn’t stop it [Brexit]... I want to say to the Government... go back now [and renegotiate]...” Pressed on whether “no Brexit” is better than “no deal”, he said: “That’s not an option we’re going to be given”. Nothing about whether the labour movement, by intervening actively, can create that option.
On Newsnight (21 November) shadow chancellor John McDonnell said: “Compromises have got to be made... We couldn’t support the deal as it now stands [but] I live in hope; we’ll see what comes out of this weekend... We’re talking about finalising a deal, we’re not talking about starting from scratch”.
Labour is not campaigning against Brexit, but pressing the Tories to negotiate more deftly. Or, at the most radical, promising that Labour itself will negotiate more deftly.
Labour wants “a permanent customs arrangement with the EU”, which seems to mean staying in the Customs Union, whereas the Tories want permanent customs links to be only a “backstop” possibility.
Labour wants some closer alignment to the Single Market than the Tories do. Even that is not a sharp difference. The Tories currently have a seven-page document on the shape of things after the end of the “transition period” (March 2019 to December 2020, in which Britain is to be out of the EU but still within all EU regulations). That commits to alignment on “state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environmental standards, climate change and relevant tax matters, building on the level playing field arrangements provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement”.