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10 January 2019

Corbyn still has a big Brexit problem – and it could lead to a no-deal exit

The Labour leader risks being the man who frustrated Brexit or the man who facilitated it, and both could knock him out of general election contention.

By Stephen Bush

Another day, another defeat for the government, as MPs voted to truncate the number of days Theresa May has to respond if (or rather, when) the Withdrawal Agreement is defeated in the House of Commons from 21 days to just three, backing an amendment brought by the Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve.

A small, but slightly bigger majority than the one which endorsed Yvette Cooper’s amendment to deter the government from going for a no-deal exit the day before, with 308 in favour to 297 against, as opposed to 303 to 296. Are parliament’s opponents of no deal becoming more numerous already?

Unfortunately, no. Although the immediate implications are about the Brexit crisis and how the parliamentary stand-off will be resolved, this vote wasn’t only about Brexit. It was also a litmus test for how MPs felt about the Speaker, John Bercow, who defied precedent to allow the motion to go ahead. Had the motion been lost, it would almost certainly triggered a serious attempt to remove Bercow as Speaker, and one that might well have succeeded.

That’s why committed Labour Brexiteers, such as John Mann, voted for Grieve’s amendment but did not vote for Cooper’s, and why former Remainers in heavily Leave seats, like Caroline Flint, Ian Austin, Lisa Nandy and Jon Cruddas, all of whom also abstained on Cooper’s amendment, voted for the Grieve amendment. It’s why the Conservative rebellion was a touch smaller, with 17 Tories voting against the government whip as opposed to the 20 who voted for Cooper’s amendment.

(It’s also why Kevin Barron, also a Labour MP in pro-Brexit territory, voted against the amendment. I’m told he has deep doubts about Bercow’s fitness to continue as Speaker having worked closely with him as chair of the parliamentary standards committee.)

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So while the government certainly doesn’t have a majority on Brexit issues, and thanks to the DUP’s ongoing protest against the backstop doesn’t have a majority on anything else of substance either, we are a long way from anyone having a stable majority for any alternative either.

That puts pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to step in to resolve the crisis, though the reality is that isn’t within his hands anymore than it is in Theresa May’s. Labour MPs who have been allies over long years cannot convince one another to back their preferred Brexit state and Corbyn certainly can’t. To give you an idea of the problem, four Labour MPs (Caroline Flint, Gareth Snell, Lisa Nandy and John Mann) have put down an amendment to the meaningful vote, and according to the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar up to 20 more could join them in voting for the government if May accepts it or something like it.

The Labour leader has a big Brexit speech today, and his big theme is that while people in Tottenham and Mansfield might have been divided as far as their choice in the referendum goes, they are united by sky-high rents, sluggish wage growth, and insecure work, and that the best way to resolve the crisis is a general election, which as it stands he has no way to secure in parliament. (That’s one reason, as I reveal in this week’s NS, John McDonnell has been quietly talking to supporters of the Norway-Plus alternative.)

Corbyn’s speech is the type of argument that might work well the day after parliament finally resolves the Brexit crisis, and one that taps into the sentiment that we can see in both the public polls and, I’m told, in Labour’s private surveys as well: that most voters want Brexit to be over as an issue and to focus on other things.

But the problem for Corbyn is that it is hard to see how the Brexit crisis can be resolved in a way that allows Labour to pivot back to talking about how lacklustre our economic performance has been and the shabby condition of the public realm without having alienated somebody. Whatever happens, Corbyn risks either being painted as the man who frustrated Brexit or the man who facilitated it, and both carry a good chance of knocking him out of general election contention.

Corbyn’s problem should worry everyone who wants to avoid a no-deal exit, however they feel about the Labour leader. Why? Because the least immediately electorally painful choice for Labour is to keep calling for an election, to keep voting to “rule out no deal”, but never actually to vote for something that does rule out no deal. And that’s why we still can’t be sure that a no-deal exit won’t happen: because it is impossible to avert without a large number of people in parliament deciding to vote against their own political interests.

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