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There is a clear path to Brexit, but no one knows what it is – least of all Theresa May

“The government is like a doughnut,” says one MP. “It has no centre”.

Politicians like a murder mystery as much as anyone else, and Westminster is now the setting of a particularly compelling one. The deceased: the first Conservative parliamentary majority since 1992, cut down in the prime of its life. The cause of death: the general election of 2017. The chief suspects: Lynton Crosby, the Conservatives’ Australian campaign chief, and Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former joint chief of staff, who is now a newspaper columnist.

This is perhaps unfair: any defeat has many authors. In this instance, however, the apportioning of blame has become a proxy battle about the future direction of the party after May quits, as she almost certainly will before the next election.

Many MPs who accept that Crosby bears little responsibility for the 2017 calamity nonetheless don’t want “Crosbyism” – an ever harsher tone on immigration, continuing transfers of income and assets from the young to the old, and an almost entirely negative offer to the country – to emerge as the party’s dominant creed.

While there is little appetite to rehabilitate Nick Timothy, they don’t want his failure to bury Mayism along with May. (Fiona Hill, Timothy’s former co-chief of staff, who was initially the subject of vicious briefings, has now faded from view because she does not represent a side in an ongoing debate.)

What is going on inside the party is particularly painful for Theresa May, as every­one in Westminster knows that the rot started at the top, not least because most of the back-room team at Conservative campaign headquarters was unchanged from the successful 2015 election. May set the Tory majority ablaze. The question of who handed her the matches is a secondary one.

The reputations of the Prime Minister and Nick Timothy aside, Mayism is in a healthier state than its ideological creators. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, who was despised inside No 10, remains at the Treasury, but he is no longer truly in power. Witness Downing Street’s announcement that the public-sector pay cap will end next year, with police officers and prison wardens the first in line for uplifts – and without any indication of how the government plans to pay for the rise.

Nurses and other public-sector workers are also expected to receive similar settlements during the autumn. The “magic money tree”, once derided, is now flourishing, with no one at the top of government able to exert any control over whether it bears fruit. “The government is like a doughnut: it has no centre,” is how one senior Conservative put it to me.

There is now a new and unexpected threat to the good health of Mayism and the temporary survival of the Prime Minister: validation. One reason that May went to the country earlier than expected was that she feared the government’s small majority made navigating Brexit an impossible task. Now she is being proved right.

There is a healthy majority in parliament for Brexit to go ahead, because of  the timidity of Conservative Remainers and the seven long-standing Leave-supporting Labour MPs: Kate Hoey, Frank Field, Dennis Skinner, Ronnie Campbell, Kelvin Hopkins, John Mann and Graham Stringer.

At the vote, in the early hours of 12 September, the government’s majority was further padded by abstentions, including that of Labour’s Caroline Flint, increasingly one of the most strident pro-Leave MPs on the Labour side.

So, the EU Withdrawal Bill, which will incorporate EU law into our statutes, comfortably passed its second reading. The difficulty is that while parliament can agree on the necessity of leaving the EU, there are wide differences of opinion, on all sides, about what our final exit should look like.

Strikingly, all the Labour Leavers happily fell in behind Jeremy Corbyn’s amendment, which criticised May’s decision to award her ministers vast “Henry VIII powers” to make and alter laws without parliamentary scrutiny. If Labour Eurosceptics are prepared to quibble with the details of  the bill, it greatly reduces the number of Conservative MPs who need to rebel for any measure to fail. Already the number of Conservative signatories on some amendments exceeds what is necessary to defeat the government. At committee stage, the government will have to make concessions.

May does have a clear path to Brexit, which is politically painless, at least if you ignore for the moment the potential for a backlash from newspapers and voters. She could tilt towards Conservative Remainers, safe in the knowledge that committed Eurosceptics will have to back her – or risk another election and confront the spectre of a Corbyn premiership.

Also, the promised “meaningful vote” on the final deal will be no such thing. Even the most diehard Remainer will have to vote for whatever is on offer, no matter how “hard” or “clean”, if the alternative is no deal at all. (Don’t believe the government’s bluster: no deal would be catastrophic, with holidaymakers stranded on the European continent and queues of lorries backed up at the Channel ports.)

The problem is that a smooth Brexit requires a more conciliatory politician than 10 Downing Street’s current occupant. And, in any case, May is only guaranteed to remain in place while she retains the trust and support of her party’s most devout Leavers.

The early election was the product of two things: a dream and a nightmare. May’s dream was to write herself into the history books with a landslide victory over Corbyn’s Labour. The nightmare was of losing control of the Brexit process. The latter possibility has only become more vivid.

May’s tragedy, however, is that even as events prove that an early election was theoretically the right call, her handling of the campaign ensures that the next political death will be that of her career. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”