Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why a slow Brexit would be a political headache for Theresa May

An interim deal would provide Ukip with an easy target at a 2020 general election.

Theresa May was a Remainer. But since she became Prime Minister, Leavers have struggled to fault her. May promised not only to deliver Brexit but to secure control of free movement and end the legal supremacy of the European Court of Justice.

She did not, quite deliberately, rule out continued EU budget contributions. Rather than lavishing money on the NHS and schools, the UK is likely to maintain payments in return for single market access. But the Brexiteers are more pragmatic on this point than many assume. Nigel Farage himself stated a week after the referendum: "There can be compromises with the EU, including on a possible British contribution to the EU budget".

An exception is the possibility of a transitional Brexit deal. Cabinet ministers, such as Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd and Damian Green, have long regarded an agreement as essential to avoid what May recently called a "cliff-edge". Few regard the UK as capable of negotiating a new trade agreement in the two years following the triggering of Article 50. Without an interim deal, Britain would be forced to revert to World Trade Organisation rules, imposing an average tariff of 5.3 per cent on exporters (an outcome that a leaked Treasury paper warned would deliver an annual £66bn hit to the economy).

During his Treasury select committee appearance yesterday, Hammond publicly stated his support for a transitional agreement: "There is, I think, an emerging view among businesses, among regulators, among thoughtful politicians, as well as a universal view among civil servants on both sides of the English channel that having a longer period to manage the adjustment between where we are now as full members of the EU and where we get to in the future as a result of negotiations would be generally helpful".

In response, Leavers have revolted. A transitional deal would mean continued free movement and EU legal supremacy. The UK would not formally leave until the 2020s. Brexiteers fear that there would be nothing so permanent as "temporary" single market membership. "Half Brexit is where they’re going," Farage said. "I think they’re going to fudge and give us a Norwegian-type deal."

Peter Lilley, one of the original Tory "bastards" (who have recently regrouped), told the Today programme: "If by the transitional deal the chancellor means a period of implementation of different processes that would be absolutely normal in any new arrangements. If there’s any suggestion that we have a temporary agreement followed by a permanent agreement, then that can’t be what the chancellor was saying because it would take as long to negotiate a temporary agreement as it would a permanent agreement."

May, who No.10 says has made no decision on an interim deal, should also be worried by the voters' view. A significant number regard the current pace of Brexit as too slow (frequently asking why Article 50 was not triggered immediately). In advance of a 2020 general election, an interim deal would provide Ukip with the target it needs. A "slow Brexit" would reduce the economic pain of withdrawal. But it could increase the political pain.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.