The Labour Party strategy on Brexit is to wait to see the deal which the government negotiates with the EU, measure it against the “six tests”, and decide whether to support it. This maximises confusion in the Conservative Party and the prospect of a General Election. However, I believe that time is running out, the prospects of an election are very thin, and the Party should be taking a stronger and more public line.
The six tests were all proposed by leading leave campaigners, but it is clear that no possible Brexit agreement can meet them. So the Party will vote against the government’s deal when it comes to Parliament. However, since the Conservatives, with the DUP, have an absolute majority, we will lose and it will go ahead. If there are any rebels, they are likely to cancel each other out. The result will probably be bad, and the Conservatives will have to take the blame, but by then Brexit will be over.
The Labour hope is that the Conservative Party will implode over this, leading to a General Election and a Labour government. However, losing the vote in Parliament does not bring down the government. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act a General Election is only called by a two thirds majority for a motion in the Commons, or if the government lose a vote of no confidence and no other leader can form a government. Either way, Labour strategy relies on Tory rebels, voting in the knowledge that they are probably putting Jeremy Corbyn in No 10, and I don’t believe that even the most rabid Brexiters will risk that. That is the gamble that Theresa May has made, and I think she will win.
Meanwhile, the clock ticks on. At the end of March next year we will crash out of the EU unless one of three things happens:
- A deal is agreed. The most likely deal now is going to be a version of the Norway agreement. People will be told that it is “real” Brexit, and many will accept that. However, it will not satisfy hard Brexiters, nor those Remainers who care about the UK’s votes and influence.
- The Article 50 notice is withdrawn. This is legally possible, but Parliament is unlikely to risk doing this for fear of appearing to defy “the will of the people”, unless a referendum has given authority.
- The EU agree to an extension of the Article 50 period This is only likely to be acceptable to the EU if they can see a prospect that we might decide to remain.
Virtually all MPs, and all interested parties in the UK and the rest of the EU agree that crashing out would be catastrophic, but the UK government claims to be preparing for it, and some commentators in Europe are beginning to think it is the only, or simplest, solution (since they already have systems in place for working with third countries).
The longer this takes, the less likely a deal (including remaining in the EU) is. There are a number of severe constraints:
- There are 8 months left (including the dead summer holiday period, the party conference season and Christmas).
- The EU says that 6 months are needed for ratification of any deal by the 30+ Parliaments and the institutions of the EU.
- A UK General Election requires weeks of preparation, and is difficult to hold in mid-winter.
- A Referendum requires at least two months for campaigning.
- In May there are elections for the European Parliament. The UK’s seats have already been distributed among the 27. Withdrawing Article 50 would severely disrupt the process.
Theresa May is gambling that the threat of a Corbyn government will, in the end, keep her MPs in line, and that if she drags the process out long enough, the only feasible option will be to accept a soft, Norway style deal. By delaying taking a clear stand, Labour risks us falling into that by default. Is that what we believe is best for the country, and the people?