Barring a miracle, the UK will not apply for an extension to the Brexit transition period before the 30 June deadline set by the Tory government itself.
So far, the Tories have been saved from a potentially very difficult situation — the combination of their Brexit disarray with the Covid-19 crisis — by two factors. The first is their self-imposed deadline. If it was straightforwardly possible to apply for an extension much nearer to the end of the transition period on 31 December, the pressure on them would undoubtedly have mounted steadily. Now they will claim the issue is closed.
The other negative factor has been the Labour Party. Keir Starmer and his lieutenants have broken their silence only to insist they will not call for an extension. They have presented capitulation to the Tory hard right as clever tactics to defeat them, and so failed to drive in the wedges made available by dissent in the Tories’ parliamentary party and big business base.
The wider labour movement and left have, probably for a variety of reasons, tailed Starmer. Many unions and Labour MPs were loud in 2019 about opposing No Deal Brexit, but none is calling for an extension. At the “policy committee” of Momentum reform group Forward Momentum, many of whose leaders are former anti-Brexit campaigners, the call for extension was voted down 47-9.
The irony is that the general population is heavily in favour, including something approaching a majority of Leavers. Far from the metropolitan elist Starmer trying to impose an anti-Brexit position on the working class, it is closer to the other way around.
New polling (see here) shows almost 90% of voters in so-called “Red Wall” constituencies lost to the Tories last year regard avoiding a No Deal Brexit as “important”, and 55% as “very important”. 70% want close links with the EU, and only 20% close links with the US.
Labour for a Socialist Europe and others have been campaigning for an extension and will continue to so for the two weeks left.
After 30 June, as the threat of a No Deal or other variant of hard Brexit mounts, we should fight for the question of extension to be reopened. Under the pressure of events and struggle, rules can be changed.
We should argue that the labour movement has missed an opportunity and that there is no time to waste on turning things around.