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22 September 2018

Barry Gardiner’s Brexit tweet is unwise, damaging to Labour – but right

Although silence would have been a better option, the blunt truth is that Labour's Brexit strategy is also the party's only viable option in the short term. 

By Stephen Bush

Labour’s shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, is under fire for tweeting “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake” in response to a tweet from a Labour party activist and former leader of Camden Council despairing at the non-response from the Opposition to the sound of silence emanating from her party.

It’s a surprising unforced error from Gardiner. One of the things that the leader’s office like about him is that, unlike most of the Shadow Cabinet, he has the experience and the confidence to know when not to accept the premise of a question and to move onto something else, expertise he would have done well to make use of here.  The phrase looks likely to be repeated with wearying regularity at Labour party conference by pro-European campaigners who think that the party’s current stance is a dereliction of duty for the Opposition party.

But the wisdom (or lack thereof) of Gardiner’s tweet aside…he’s got a point, not least because it is difficult to see what else Labour can do. Don’t forget that in the vote over the customs union, Labour had to wheel out every possible trick to try and defeat the government: they effectively made Dennis Skinner – whose pro-Leave credentials are in no doubt in the PLP – an additional whip and tasked him with reassuring worried Leavers that defeating the government on this vote wouldn’t imperil the great prize of Brexit.

The whips’ office even invoked Jeremy Corbyn’s own private Euroscepticism to reassure nervous MPs in Leave constituencies that there was no risk of Labour actually stopping Brexit, while Keir Starmer also sent messages to parliamentary colleagues emphasizing that the customs union vote was not a matter of stopping Brexit. Added to that, membership of a customs union doesn’t rub against any of the major drivers behind the Leave vote in Labour constituencies (or indeed, any constituencies) making it easier to persuade worried Labour MPs it was safe to vote against the customs union.

So with a favourable battleground, a sizable Conservative rebellion and the whips’ office straining every sinew, the Labour leadership still couldn’t persuade enough Labour Leavers to vote with them to defeat the government. There is no hope or serious prospect that Jeremy Corbyn would be able to do better than that for a more contentious second referendum vote or an even softer Brexit, such as membership of the EEA or single market in some form.

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Labour’s problem on Brexit is that like the Conservatives, they are too divided to do anything in the House of Commons. The one unifying position is that the Tory Brexit deal won’t be good enough: but they will be divided as to why.

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So against that backdrop, hanging back and letting the Conservative crisis dominate isn’t so much the Labour leadership’s best strategy, but the only strategy.