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22 November 2018

Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit attack lines show why defeat is certain for Theresa May

But they don’t answer the question of where Labour would, or could, go next. 

By Patrick Maguire

In the Commons clashes he has had with Theresa May since the publication of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, Jeremy Corbyn has fared well and maintained an unhelpful degree of pressure on the points that are causing the prime minister maximum political pain. 

This has been most obvious on the Irish border and the backstop, the legal mechanism in the withdrawal agreement to prevent a hardening of the frontier. This is May’s stickiest wicket, and her inability to satisfy the demands of the Brexiteers on her own benches and DUP have lost her cabinet ministers and a majority. 

Responding to her statement on the publication of the political declaration on the future relationship today, Corbyn stuck to an attack line that is causing some consternation within Labour: the backstop, he said, created a new regulatory border in the Irish Sea (goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will have to undergo some new checks). 

As I wrote yesterday, that’s the same absolutist line that the DUP take, and it’s a strange one for Corbyn to adopt. But it inflicts maximum pain upon May and exposes her inability to satisfy those MPs it needs to pass her withdrawal agreement.

The same is true of several attacks Corbyn made on fishing, an issue that has threatened to divide May from the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs and others in Cornwall, as well as Michael Gove. “It sounds to me like we’re replacing membership of the Common Fisheries Policy with a new Common Fisheries Policy,” he said, in another intervention that revealed the subtext that May, for political reasons, has to pretend doesn’t exist. Ditto his line that the UK is paying the EU £39bn for a “blindfold Brexit” – David Davis is fond of using the same line. 

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The extent to which Corbyn’s attack lines could have been written for – or by – Tory Brexiteers and the DUP does mean that he is certain to fulfil his immediate aim of ensuring that Theresa May’s Brexit deal does not pass the Commons. But it also makes it harder to see where Labour could possibly go once that happens.