Why Labour won’t help the government on Brexit

It’s important to remember what Brexit is as far as the Labour leadership is concerned: occasionally a means by which to whack the government, but most of the time, not its problem. 

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Will Labour save Theresa May on Brexit? With dozens of her own MPs unwilling to back seemingly any Brexit model she proposes, the only chance the Chequers plan has of getting through the Commons is if Jeremy Corbyn and the opposition choose to back it. 

A week of knife-edge votes in the Commons underlines both the difficulty May will have in attempting to get MPs to vote for the final deal, and the likelihood that it will be rejected. As a result, some in Westminster have speculated that the threat of a no-deal scenario might bounce Labour into eventually voting for whatever the prime minister puts on the table. 

Unfortunately for May, that isn’t happening. Keir Starmer writes in today’s Daily Mirror that Labour will not vote for the Chequers plan – “no ifs, no buts” – and restated the party’s six tests for backing the government’s Brexit deal, which are essentially unpassable.

Why? It’s important to remember what Brexit is as far as the Labour leadership is concerned: occasionally a means by which to whack the government, but most of the time, not its problem. “Everyone is trying to have a go at JC for not having an X or Y position,” a source told me recently. “As if we’d get involved in that shit voluntarily.”

Others who work on the party’s policy agree. It makes little sense for Labour to waste political capital backing a May deal, not least one that is inherently deficient anyway. “We didn’t ask for a referendum, we didn’t campaign to leave,” another senior source said yesterday. “Why would we own the government’s deal?”

That fundamental calculation is crucial to understanding why the Labour leadership behaves in the way it does. For some of the party’s MPs, it is at worst a dereliction of duty and at best a figleaf for disguising the parliamentary Labour party’s own irreconcilable differences. “We just don’t have a position,” one complains. “Sometimes, I’m grateful we’re not in government, because what the hell would we do?” 

As far as the leadership’s own political objectives are concerned, however, it has to some extent worked. The failure of the Commons to back a customs union yesterday vindicates a moderate stance: there is no point picking a policy position, like the EEA, that will alienate the party’s own MPs and needs Tory rebels to fly. And while there are, of course, some Labour backbenchers who might back a government deal were it soft enough, come what may, everything about May’s current predicament suggests this isn’t going to be the case. 

The really interesting question, party sources say, is what Labour does if things explode and the government falls. Nobody is sold on the idea of a second referendum, no matter how many times it is excitedly pointed out that Corbyn has refused to categorically rule one out (some also doubt whether the Lords would even pass the legislation to hold one, given that it did not appear in any party’s manifesto). 

The point at which Labour’s Brexit policy really starts to matter is the point at which the manifestos are published ahead of the next general election, whenever that may be. With so many known unknowns – the competing influences of LOTO, Starmer and the PLP, the state of the economy, and whatever May's stance is by then – it is ultimately far too early to tell what it will look like. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.