In the politics of 2017, the impossible becomes inevitable. We said that about 2016 too, and we’ll probably be saying it until at least 2019, when Brexit negotiations are supposed to conclude. Six months ago, Hard Brexit was a foregone conclusion and Theresa May looked like the most successful politician of her generation. Now, a nightmare of contradictions is set to scupper both. Tory grandees are already urging the government to walk away from negotiations. When Amber Rudd says a No Deal scenario is “unthinkable”, she is holding up a mirror to the fact that it is becoming possible.
On some levels, all of this is good news for Labour. Even if negotiations don’t break down entirely, May’s government will come out with a deal which betrays at least half of its support base and which could include massive payments and embarrassing climbdowns. The Opposition has to do almost nothing in order to benefit electorally, and the prevailing common sense in many Labour circles is that it would be better to come into power after the negotiations, avoiding the tricky business of being in them.
This comforting common sense, that time is unambiguously on our side, is misplaced. Although the mess of Tory Brexit will certainly benefit Labour’s poll rating, the realities of it will hamper the left in the long run. A Corbyn government, introducing the most radical programme in recent western European history, will have enough economic problems on its own without having to contend with the breakdown of Britain’s international trade system.
For those in charge of it, Brexit is not a policy but an ideological project designed to permanently shift power and ideas. The EU Withdrawal Bill, which has now been delayed for the second time because of backbench rebellions, re-writes the British constitution, handing sweeping executive powers to a Tory executive to make and repeal laws without parliamentary votes. Despite having no mandate – in fact having actually lost an election – May’s government could do untold damage to the rights of workers and migrants, and to our environmental and human rights frameworks, that could be impossible to reverse.
To oppose this agenda effectively, Labour needs to be combative. It needs to hold the line on the politics, offering a positive narrative on immigration and real solutions for “left behind Britain”. And it must throw up every possible procedural and political obstacle to the EU Withdrawal Bill and other right wing Brexit legislation, in the hope that it can get into government before, not after, Brexit is concluded. Whipping for Article 50 in March might have momentarily made the narrative easier, but any more free passes for May are self-defeating and a dereliction of duty.
In the end, Labour will have to face the ultimate question. At some stage, Theresa May will return to the House of Commons with a Brexit settlement – and it will either be a bad deal or no deal at all. It is very unlikely that it will be possible to amend what has been negotiated, and Labour simply cannot vote for a deal that trashes rights, freedoms and the economy. Doing so would make it responsible for the consequences. And abstaining on the pre-eminent issue of the day is likely to look weak. The Brexit trap is still live, and there may only be one way out.
Labour will have to vote against May’s Brexit deal, and it must start marshalling its arguments. Attempting simply to block the deal by parliamentary vote could be a disaster. Instead, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer must address the democratic deficit directly, and make a bold appeal to popular sovereignty. Neither the government nor the deal will have popular support. The best option at this stage may well be to call for a referendum on the terms of exit.
The unlikeliest of things become inevitable. This would be a fresh referendum on the terms of the deal, not a “second referendum” exactly – but it would still cut against every grain of the carefully constructed, conservative Brexit position that Labour has thus far assembled. Ultimately, however, a referendum may be both the most popular option and the best way to respect the will of the people. We are unlikely to hear the frontbench articulate the case for it yet, but the wider labour movement must now begin to consider it.