One of the many illuminating anecdotes in Yes to Europe, Robert Saunders’ brilliant history of the 1975 referendum campaign, concerns Jim Callaghan’s first meeting with his top civil servant at the Foreign Office in 1974.
“I hear you really care about Europe,” he said, “Well, that’s alright, as long as you remember that I really care about the Labour Party.” And bluntly, that’s all you really need to understand to get your head around the present-day Labour Party’s “don’t rule anything out, don’t rule anything in” position on Brexit.
The terrifying truth is that the opposition is too divided – within the parliamentary party, within the trades unions, within the shadow cabinet and even within the leader’s office – to be anything other than a veto player as far as Brexit goes, and the party’s whole gambit is really about trying to make that weakness look like a strength. Keir Starmer saying that Labour is “increasingly likely” to vote down the deal is simply a reflection of the fact that the one thing the Labour Party will be able to agree on as far as Brexit goes is that Theresa May’s deal is no good.
The question being asked at fringes, by MPs, and by journalists here in Liverpool is: can that possibly last? Can Labour’s Schrödinger’s Brexit possibly make it through the looming crisis and keep the party’s electoral coalition together for another election, wherever it may be.
In the spirit that there is no idea too stupid to write down, I can’t see how the politics of Brexit won’t, if anything, get easier for Labour rather than harder. Let’s imagine that the government’s talks end up in disaster (not such a big leap, really). Well, that makes the politics of moving to a more anti-Brexit position easier and more likely to unify the parliamentary Labour Party.
Let’s say that the government agrees to the vaguest of language about the future relationship and a transition that continues until the Tory Party can resolve its own divisions over Brexit. Well, in that case, Labour’s own vague position will do just fine.
The bad news for the rest of us is that whatever happens, as it stands Labour is incapable of asserting itself as a proactive force to resolve the parliamentary deadlock. If there is any hope for the United Kingdom to avoid leaving without a deal, it lies in an entirely unexpected and wholly unlikely outbreak of unity at Conservative Party conference next week in Birmingham.