Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the Confederation for British Industry’s annual conference this afternoon covered ground that will be familiar to anyone who has watched an instalment of Prime Minister’s Questions in the past year.
The Labour leader – received politely in the hall – said much about the need to reconfigure and revitalise the economy through investment in infrastructure, green energy and education. But as was the case with Theresa May’s address to the CBI earlier today, Brexit was at the top of the room’s collective agenda.
Reiterating that Labour would vote against Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, the Labour leader attacked the prime minister’s “botched, worst-of-all-worlds deal” and talked up the Opposition’s “alternative plan for a sensible jobs-first deal that could win support in parliament and help bring our country together”, namely a permanent customs union with the EU.
At this point, this is all rote, as was his recitation of Labour’s official line on what it will do when the deal comes before the Commons: “Labour will vote against the government’s deal and if the government cannot get its central policy through Parliament, then we will demand a general election. But if we cannot secure a general election, then we have been clear that all options must remain on the table, including a public vote.” (He added Brexit could act as a catalyst for economic change, which isn’t what a convert to the People’s Vote campaign would say.)
Indeed, Corbyn studiously and successfully avoided committing any meaningful news, and dodged a question from Sky News on whether he would be willing to request an extension to Article 50 to allow a Labour government to renegotiate the deal in Brussels (which he said the EU would allow because the negotiation would not be conducted on the basis of threats to turn the UK into a low-tax economy).
What, if anything, does this mean? To the extent that it tells us anything, it confirms that the Labour leadership has no intention of changing course ahead of the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement. Corbyn got short shrift from Carolyn Fairbarn, the CBI’s chief executive, as a result. “Firms wants a new relationship based on frictionless trade, services access and a say for the UK over future rules,” she said. “The deal currently on the table opens up this potential, and the last thing businesses want is to go backwards. The government’s deal is not perfect, but with four months to go and the potential of no deal looming progress must be made.”
The response of Teams Corbyn and Starmer to that charge is that there is no majority in the Commons for no deal, which they believe to be a constitutional impossibility anyway – sources close to the shadow Brexit secretary claim that 51 legislative changes would be needed ahead of a no-deal scenario and also argue that it would be politically unsustainable for the executive to pursue it without the consent of the legislature. The line is that no deal “is not an option”. But the likeliest no-deal scenario isn’t optional, it’s the default in the event that, as looks inevitable – due in no small part to Labour’s continuing opposition – May’s deal is voted down. What is still missing on the leadership’s part is a strategy to finesse what happens next.