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12 October 2017

Jeremy Corbyn is the only politician with a Brexit strategy that’s working

The Labour leader is doing just enough to keep his 2017 coalition together. 

By Stephen Bush

A lot has been written about Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Brexit, but it often neglects the most important fact: he’s winning.

It’s true that the Labour leader is an instinctive Eurosceptic, but as far as the path to a softer Brexit goes, the bigger obstacle is the large chunk of Labour MPs, mainly concentrated in Yorkshire and the Midlands. Although there are perhaps ten to 15 frontbenchers who might change their vote if the official position changes, they are outweighed by backbenchers who are voting with the party position not under duress but because they broadly support it.

(It’s worth adding that against this, many pro-European Labour MPs believe that their colleagues would switch to a softer position if they didn’t have the cover of following Corbyn’s instructions. It’s not so much that the official party position is forcing their hand – it’s that it is staying the hand of the largely pro-Corbyn membership from agitating against MPs voting for a harder Brexit.)

In any case, while Corbyn is not a Europhile he also doesn’t have religion on the matter. The leadership’s big priority is holding on to its 2017 coalition, and positioning itself to discomfort the government wherever possible.

And it’s doing a very good job of it: Corbyn largely avoids tackling the government on the substance of Brexit but instead points to ministerial divisions, while doing just enough – yesterday’s decision not to talk about the EU at Prime Minister’s Questions, and today’s statement that he would vote Remain in the event of a second referendum is a case in point – to keep Remainers on side.

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In any case, thanks to first past the post, the only unequivocally anti-Brexit parties struggle to break out of their electoral cages. The difficulty with “vote Liberal Democrat to stop Brexit”, is that its highlights, rather than distracts from, the third party’s perennial problem – that people don’t think they can win and therefore won’t vote for them. Pledging to stop Brexit means that people simply start thinking about the fact the Liberal Democrats can’t form a government.

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As for the Conservatives, the big problem with their Brexit strategy is that it is designed around the political predilections of their parliamentary party, rather than any cohesive strategy to retain the support of the 13 million people who voted for them in June, let alone one that aims to get more votes than they did last time.

(Ironically, the only other group with a Brexit strategy that coheres with their party-political objectives are Corbyn’s internal critics: by backing the single market they a) preserve an essential pillar of their economic model, b) remind Labour members that they are not all bad, and c) open a wedge with their leader.)

That isn’t to say that Labour’s Brexit strategy isn’t, in my view, wrong for the country or potentially fatal to the party’s hopes of enacting its manifesto. But it is to say that any analysis that starts by asking “What is Corbyn doing?” ignores that the obvious answer is “succeeding”, at least as far as the next election goes.