There are roughly three positions within British politics on Brexit: quit everything European in order to strike free-trade deals with the rest of the world; stage a new referendum in order to reverse the Brexit process; or mitigate the impact of leaving the European Union by staying as close to its regulatory principles as possible or necessary.
This last position commands a majority in the House of Commons, has the technical support of both front benches and, as far as we know from polling, the British people too. It is also the right position.
Yet Theresa May’s inability to turn that position into legislation – or even into a coherent negotiating strategy – looks increasingly likely to bring her down. She has scheduled a marathon one-day voting session in parliament on 12 June, during which the Conservatives will attempt to overturn all 15 amendments by the House of Lords to the Brexit bill, including – crucially – the commitment to staying in a customs union.
This commitment would kill de jure the right-wing Tory dream of independent trade deals, which has died de facto as May has retreated from hard Brexit rhetoric. That’s why the Prime Minister’s team has made it a do-or-die issue when, on almost all other aspects of the Brexit plan, they have moved closer and closer to mirroring the regulations of the single market.
For Jeremy Corbyn, there is an opportunity not just to defeat May on a customs union, which Labour supports, but to shatter the authority of her government and reset the terms of the Brexit negotiations. But the cards need to be played with care and dexterity.
To begin with, Labour needs to tone down its tribalism over a customs union. There are up to 15 Tory rebels prepared to uphold the Lords’ decision. Even if a few diehard Lexiteers on the Labour benches vote with the government, that’s enough to inflict defeat. Labour should impose a three-line whip on the customs union vote and make this – and only this – the issue of the day. It’s not just about standing back and letting Anna Soubry or Dominic Grieve grandstand for a few moments: it’s about Labour itself embracing the national interest argument for a customs union.
First, only a customs union can cement the Northern Irish peace deal. Second, by seeking a customs union with the EU, Britain will have made its first conciliatory gesture in the entire proceedings – a gesture that the Foreign Office could exploit to remove blockages and tensions over security co-operation and the Galileo satellite system. Third, only a customs union guarantees the future of the automobile, aerospace and energy manufacturing plants that have become the high-value core of British industry. Fourth, remaining in a customs union with the EU will be a major geopolitical commitment. It signals that, at a time when Donald Trump is starting a trade war and Vladimir Putin is trying to dismember Nato, we have chosen to be part of the biggest and most congruent economic trading and security partnership in the world, and the closest to Britain, despite its flaws.
Once May’s authority is shattered she may get overthrown, or might limp on until the Conservative party conference in October. But that, in turn, presents Labour with a challenge it has been unwilling to meet so far. Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer’s six tests for the “meaningful vote” on a government proposal would, once May is gone, be all but irrelevant. We would be in a situation where it was clear no Tory government would ever propose a coherent exit plan that could be judged against the tests themselves.
On the day after May slinks, leaden-faced, from defeat in the Commons, Labour needs to produce its own white paper on single market membership, and ask the progressive nationalists, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats to support it.
It should contain conditions: a clear intent to place a floor, not a ceiling, on social and environmental rights, and a request to suspend freedom of movement temporarily while signing up to the principle.
Does that go further in a pro-EU direction than critics like me would like? Yes. If I could design the EU from scratch I would do it without free movement, without the euro and with much tougher enlargement rules, most of which countries like Hungary and Croatia would not meet.
Yet as Britain’s former EU ambassador Ivan Rogers pointed out three weeks ago, the EU is a regulatory superpower and all sensible options for Britain once outside it involve mirroring single market rules to gain market access.
If the EU refuses these conditions for European Economic Area (EEA) membership, the fallback option should be a Labour version of close regulatory alignment. None of these outcomes solve the problem of “rule-taking” but that is a problem created by the referendum result, not Corbyn.
If Labour can bring itself to make a clear proposal on conditional EEA membership, the ball would then be in the court not only of EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier but of Chuka Umunna, Alastair Campbell and George Soros: here is Labour actively fighting for a European future that, at the same time, respects the wishes of the 17 million people who voted to leave the EU. “Are you with us or against us?” would be a much more powerful question to those plotting a centrist breakaway if Labour were prepared to replace its tests with clear proposals.
The next seven days are the moment for Labour to come out of its corner, landing hard blows on the xenophobes and Little Englanders of the Tory right. For that, it needs its left jab and its right hook aimed at the same target.
Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer
This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family