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16 December 2018

Westminster’s two Jeremys reveal where power really lies in the Brexit debate

The Foreign Secretary and the Labour leader command headlines, but it is their parties who really matter to the Brexit outcome. 

By Stephen Bush

Jeremy Hunt has claimed that the United Kingdom will “flourish and prosper” after a no-deal Brexit in an interview with the Telegraph while Andrew Gwynne’s appearance on The Andrew Marr Show, where he laid out Labour’s position on no confidence motions, second referendums and all that, has people talking about another Jeremy: Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, and what his intentions are.

Quite sensibly, no one is interpreting Hunt’s position as some outgrowth of “the political philosophy and thought of Jeremy Hunt”. It’s all being seen for what it is: political positioning given the balance of Brexiteer and Remainer forces in the Tory party’s grassroots.

Ultimately, the only bit of the government that matter as far as the United Kingdom’s Brexit outcome are Downing Street, which ultimately controls the legislative timetable and will decide how the executive reacts to and in anticipation of lost votes in the legislature. Hunt’s interview only matters as far as the much narrower question of who ultimately replaces Theresa May is concerned – are Conservative MPs and party members buying his conversion to the ranks of no deal? The answer, from the conversations I’ve had this morning is: unfortunately for Hunt, while some of them are, not enough Leavers are buying it to compensate for Tory Remainers who now think he is a dilettante and “an empty shirt”, in the words of one.

To the extent that Jeremy Hunt “matters” in all this, it is as an avatar of the forces that could lead to a no-deal exit: that is, the sizable caucus of Brexiteer opponents of the withdrawal agreement, the hardest possible negotiated exit available to the United Kingdom, both within the Conservative parliamentary party and the Tory party grassroots.

There is a tendency to forget that the same dynamic is at work in the Labour Party too, and to interpret ever shift in Labour party policy through the lens of “the political philosophy and thought of Jeremy Corbyn”. Labour Party policy on Brexit is, and probably always will be, softer than the ideal position of Corbyn himself. Labour Party policy is primarily driven by the needs of internal party management and to keep Labour’s existing coalition on side.

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As I explain in the Sunday Times today, the Labour leadership know that at present, any concrete position on Brexit will incur political damage and their hope is that the passage of time will make the politics less painful, one way or another.

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Are there committed Brexiteers with the ear of Jeremy Corbyn? Yes, of course. But there is no button in Corbyn’s office that controls the votes of Labour MPs. One vital and overlooked factor in all this is that if it looks as if a no deal exit is looming, the challenge for Corbyn won’t be securing his ideal version of Brexit, but finessing the fact that a large number of Labour MPs will, come the crunch, vote for any Brexit deal to prevent no deal. Labour supporters of another referendum know this full well which is why they are so worried about May delaying the vote on the withdrawal agreement.

If that doesn’t happen, the crucial point won’t be what Jeremy Corbyn thinks but does not say, or what Jeremy Hunt says but does not think: but the balance of forces within their parties and their coalitions in the country.