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16 January 2019

Who’ll blink first in the stand-off between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May?

Anyone betting against the Labour leader is likely to lose more than their shirt. 

By Stephen Bush

Guess who’s coming to dinner? Not Jeremy Corbyn. Theresa May has invited the Labour leader to Downing Street to discuss a way forward on Brexit, but Corbyn’s team have refused, insisting that the Prime Minister first take the threat of a no deal Brexit off the table. May has refused to do so.

It is not quite true to say that May cannot take no deal off the table – she could promise to bring forward the necessary legislation saying that, in the event that the United Kingdom cannot reach an accord by 28 March 2019, Parliament gives the Prime Minister the right to revoke Article 50. (Even a simple motion might be enough but lawyers are divided on that. A full bill, which could be passed very quickly, would do the same.)

It is true to say however that while May’s acquiescence is a necessary precondition of taking a no deal exit off the table, it is not in of itself enough – Parliament would have to vote to allow her to do so, though in practice there is a small cross-party majority to do so.

But it is an open question as to whether or not May could survive doing so politically or whether doing so would cause the DUP and some pro-Brexit Conservatives to abandon her government.

From Corbyn’s perspective, while his preference is for a negotiated Brexit over reversing the referendum by some considerable distance, it is not clear if the politics of Labour’s internal coalition have yet reached a point where Labour’s hopes of winning the next election could survive facilitating Brexit or blocking it in some way, which also incentivises him to hold out.

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So what happens next? The pattern throughout the rest of Europe is clear: when the electorate throws up deadlocked legislatures, the centre-left opts to take political damage in order to avoid systemic political damage. That’s part of why so much of the social democratic left is in such a bad position electorally.

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But Corbyn isn’t of the social democratic centre-left and his political incentives are different. Anyone relying on him to blink to avert the deadlock is likely to be disappointed.