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27 November 2017updated 12 Oct 2023 11:16am

On Brexit, Labour is about to take a big gulp from a poisoned chalice

Taking over in the wake of a contest triggered by the sudden collapse of Theresa May’s minority government is surely Labour’s nightmare scenario.

By Tim Bale

What we always seem to talk about when we talk about Brexit is the Tories. Given that they’re in government, and given the mess they seem to be making of the whole thing, that’s wholly understandable.  But it’s also dangerous, not least because it’s letting Labour off the hook, blinding the party to the fact that it may be about to take a very big drink from a very big poisoned chalice.

Jeremy Corbyn and co should be breathing a big sigh of relief that, as the EU Withdrawal Bill grinds its way through parliament, media coverage is more likely than ever to focus on a handful of Conservative ‘mutineers’ rather than on Her Majesty’s Opposition. This, plus the fact that all eyes will soon be on the next European Council meeting in Brussels, means voters won’t be anything like as aware as they should be that Labour remains as badly split as ever – and not just on how and when this country should leave the European Union, but whether it should leave at all.

Yet any relief among the Labour leadership that it’s May rather than Corbyn who’s currently feeling the heat most could turn out to be very short-lived indeed, especially if the party is unlucky enough to win the next general election – whether that election takes place before or after Brexit in March 2019.

Taking over in the wake of a contest triggered by the sudden collapse of Theresa May’s minority government is surely Labour’s nightmare scenario.

For one thing, Prime Minister Corbyn would probably only have made it into No 10 with the parliamentary support of the SNP, a party that has made no secret of the fact that it regards Brexit as a calamity and will do anything within its power to halt it.

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For another, there are an awful lot of Labour MPs who feel exactly the same way.  Sure, many of them, especially those representing Leave constituencies, remain nervous about defying the ‘will of the people’.  But even if that means they’re prepared to see the UK leave the EU, they would still prefer a much softer Brexit – up to and including staying in the single market and the customs union – than is currently on offer from Mrs May.

Given all this, would a Labour (or Labour-led) government really refuse to stop the clock, pause the process and think again?  I don’t think so.

Let’s imagine, though, that it never gets the chance: that Corbyn instead takes office after rather than before we leave the EU.  And let’s imagine, too, that the deal negotiated by his Tory predecessor turns out to be a complete turkey.

Having presumably felt obliged to support said deal in a parliamentary vote, lest it be accused of ignoring the referendum result, Labour would hardly be able to disclaim any responsibility for the resulting administrative chaos/economic meltdown/diplomatic humiliation (delete as appropriate).  Moreover, the chances of it ushering in a popular and truly transformative programme with all that going on would be slim to non-existent.

How long a Labour government would last in those circumstances, and how long it would then spend in opposition once disappointed and even angry voters had removed it from power is anyone’s guess.

So, too, is whether a party already riven by divisions between its centrist and socialist wings could even survive such an outcome, at least in its present form.

Every opposition should be desperate to defeat the existing government and take its place at the drop of a hat, right?  Wrong.  ‘Careful what you wish for; you might just get it’ may be something of a cliché.  But for Labour, it’s one it might want to think about – and hard.

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