As we go to press on 2 April, the Tory government has just finished a special Cabinet meeting. Theresa May outlined a plan B: To approach Jeremy Corbyn to seek a joint Brexit proposal to put to Parliament.
This would include the existing Withdrawal Agreement. It might (she implied) also involve changes to the document on future relations after the end in December 2020 of the “transition period” during which Britain remains in EU rules though outside the EU. And a plan C: To get agreement with Jeremy Corbyn on a list of Brexit options to put to MPs, with a joint commitment from both Tory and Labour leaders that they will accept whichever of those options MPs favour.
Corbyn has said he is “happy” to meet May. Even with full cooperation from Jeremy Corbyn, there is only an off-chance that these plans would produce May’s desired result, an agreed Brexit deal before 22 May (the last date to avoid holding Euro elections).
From the labour movement’s point of view, the main point is that Jeremy Corbyn should refuse to help the Tories out of the Brexit mess. He should insist on a new public vote between whatever the Tories can come up with — even if it is “no deal” — and Remain.
The Labour Party conference in September 2018 agreed a fudged formula which nonetheless stated flatly that Labour should oppose the Tory deal (then only in preparation). It laid down tests required to make a deal support-worthy which none of the formulas now on the table meets. It said that Labour should push to get an early general election, and then (as an “option”, but the only option named) for a new public vote.
Labour has tentatively backed a new public vote. John McDonnell, Keir Starmer, and Emily Thornberry have said they’d back Remain; Jeremy Corbyn has said he might back Leave. Probably under pressure from the Morning Star wavelength Leader’s Office, more recently Corbyn has emphasised the idea of seeking a formula to “unite Parliament and the country”.
A “Corbyn spokesman” (presumably someone from Seamus Milne’s “Leader’s Office”) has told the media that the party supports a referendum only on a “damaging Tory Brexit”. If Labour takes power, said the “spokesman”, it will negotiate a better Brexit, which won’t need a referendum. Shadow minister Barry Gardiner has said that Labour “is no longer a Remain party”. Corbyn has suggested that just adding a permanent customs union with the EU would be essentially enough to get his backing. It shouldn’t be.
A permanent customs union will not even (by itself) avoid a hard border in Ireland. It will leave free movement abolished, migrant workers harassed, economic integration unwound, barriers re-raised, the openings which the EU gives for cross-European labour movement cooperation for democracy and social levelling-up blighted.
A million people marched against Brexit on 23 March. 80% or so of Labour members and voters back Remain. Polls suggest Remain would have a majority in a new public vote against both May’s Withdrawal Agreement and “no deal”. Democracy means minorities always have the right to reopen arguments and seek to become majorities. Take the “build unions, not borders” message to the streets again!