For the many Labour MPs who tramped the streets in 2016 talking up the EU only to be politically side-lined after Brexit, the phase one deal Theresa May agreed on Friday with the European Commission was promising. As one of their number Chuka Umunna put it on Twitter: “It is clear… if needed to solve the Irish border issue, the UK will continue to abide by the rules of the single market and customs union.”
Labour Eurosceptics made similar observations – although with different conclusions. “We’re essentially not leaving in all but name,” Brendan Chilton, the chair of Labour Leave, told me. “We’re still going to be subject to the European Court of Justice. We’re going to be mimicking the process of the single market and customs union.”
In progressive Remainer circles, those who accept Brexit in theory will nevertheless be quick to point out that nothing about the single market and customs union was on the ballot paper. This matters, because if the UK does stay in the single market, it is likely to be forced to accept all of the four freedoms that come with it – including the free movement of people.
That is not the outcome Chilton thinks the British public want. “The country did not vote for this,” he said, when we spoke over the phone. “I totally appreciate these words were not specifically on the ballot paper, it was just leaving the EU. However, during the referendum campaign and subsequently, senior figures in both Conservative and Labour party said leaving the EU means leaving the single market and customs union.”
The government’s compromises have already enraged Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers, but Chilton believes a similar rebellion is simmering in Labour. “The parliamentary Labour party is split down the middle,” he said. “There is the potential to reshape British politics.” He sees the issues for Eurosceptic Leave voters as focused on controlling immigration, but also the freedom to reshape the economy.
Gareth Snell, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, was first elected during a February 2017 by-election when his party’s fortunes appeared to be at a low ebb. While Snell supported Remain, 72 per cent of his constituents voted Leave. “The question I get asked continually is ‘Why haven’t we left yet?’” he told me.
Snell says his constituents voted Leave for “a whole multitude of reasons” including border control, sovereignty, the negative impact of globalisation on a former industrial area and “the way politics is run”. In particular, this last concern is likely to only grow. As Snell puts it: “I am not convinced that the document the Prime Minister is explaining to the House of Commons is going to satiate some voters’ concerns about how politics is run in this country.”
The EU-UK deal came at the end of a tumultuous week in politics, where the government was confronted with an apparent contradiction between preserving the UK and leaving the EU. A compromise couched in unionist terms might resonate in Stoke on Trent. “The idea of keeping the UK together is quite important to my constituents,” Snell says. “They are ‘small p’ patriots. The idea we should be broken up isn’t something they like.” Instead, though, he says the government has resorted to “political speak” of “regulatory alignment” that leaves them alienated.
Snell’s comments were corroborated by another Labour MP who voted Remain with a significant number of constituents who voted Leave. She, too, gets the question: “Why haven’t we left yet?”, mostly from consitutents for whom Brexit is primarily about controlling immigration: “The customs union for them is a totally separate issue.” The situation is made more complicated by the fact that reducing immigration alone would have little impact on the underlying skills problem that has plagued her constituency, also a former industrial area.
She, like Snell, is riled by the apparent willingness of Remainers to dismiss Leave voters as stupid, rather than accept the challenge to their own ideas. “They treat them like they didn’t understand,” she said. “It is not that they didn’t understand. They disagreed.”
In the initial aftermath of the Brexit vote, a saying circulated among Remainers, paraphrased here (anyone who can trace the original writer please do get in touch) “if you woke up feeling the world was upside down, remember that other people felt like this every single day.” As the months have passed, though, attempts to understand the other side of the polling divide have been limited. Labour’s surprise surge in the snap election was partly attributed to its ability to fudge the question of Brexit altogether, an approach the party seems set to stick with even as negotiations with the EU progress.
The Labour MPs in Leave areas believe the party needs to remain focused on leaving the EU if voters in their constituency are to remain loyal (Snell’s Labour neighbour in Stoke-on-Trent South, Rob Flello, lost to a Conservative in the 2017 election).“If Brexit isn’t delivered I think there is going to be ramifications for each party in a way that we can’t even think about,” said Snell. “If the Labour party is seen as crossing Brexit we will have an instant problem with our white, working class, small town voters who will see this as two fingers from the establishment. What comes next could be the resurgence of a Ukip-style party.”
His colleague also worries a fudge will lead to more discontent “This was a reaction to how people feel treated,” she said. “If we don’t, people will feel betrayed and then we will see a rise in political extremism.”