Is Jeremy Corbyn playing a long game to secure a soft Brexit?

The Labour leader wants to leave the European Union and the single market – and most of his MPs agree. 

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Is Jeremy Corbyn playing a “long game” as far as a soft exit from the European Union goes? That’s the argument that some of his supporters in the commentariat are making. In response, Remainers say that there is no time for “a long game”: with every day that passes, the United Kingdom gets closer to leaving without a deal.

Who’s right?

To take the “there’s no time” point first: there is no group of people anywhere else in the European Union who believes that Britain leaving without a deal is good for anyone. The only people who believe this are some on the right of the Conservative Party and a minority in Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle. (There is another, larger group, who believe that exiting without a deal would certainly precipitate a Labour landslide in short order, but make it much harder to deliver a left-wing programme in the long-term.)

On the EU side, if there is a parliamentary majority for taking the Article 50 negotiations into extra time and a clear sign that on the British side, there is a new approach to talks, a way will be found to secure more time. While the damage is asymmetric – the United Kingdom would come off far worse in the event of a Brexit without a deal than the EU27 would – there is still considerable damage to be had, particularly if a British exit without a deal triggered a severe financial crisis in the British banking system, as is probable.

So a long game isn’t a crazy idea. However, Corbyn isn’t pursuing one. He is a Eurosceptic of long vintage, who voted against every European treaty to come before the House of Commons in his tenure as an MP. Membership of the European Union and the single market both mean that the United Kingdom would be subject to the rules of the European Court of Justice, which limits the freedom of a radical left-wing government, at least as far as the leader’s office is concerned.

As I wrote this morning, Corbyn’s personal view on the EU is a bit of a red herring as far as Brexit goes – ultimately, under the British system, parliament is sovereign and if there is a parliamentary majority for a longer transition, or an exit deal that retains one or both of Britain’s membership of the customs union or the single market, then parliament can bind Theresa May to seek it.

What really matters is not that Corbyn wants a drastic exit from the European Union, but that, at present, the bulk of Labour MPs agree with him. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.