Why, for Corbyn or May, breaking the Brexit deadlock would also mean splitting their parties

If Labour lets the Prime Minister’s deal through, it would provide the perfect pretext for “the Six” to set up on their own.

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Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn exchanged letters about Brexit over the past week, each describing a product and naming a price. The product is a Brexit deal that is acceptable to the European Union and can pass the House of Commons, and the price for each leader is shattering his or her party, potentially permanently. Understandably, both leaders are keen for the other to pick up the tab.

The two deals share several features but are by no means identical. May’s agreement, negotiated with the European Union, has already been rejected once by the House of Commons. It gives up the gold-standard level of market access enjoyed in services in exchange for a curb on freedom of movement: an economic hit in return for “taking back control” of immigration. It would also allow the UK to pursue an independent trade policy, the central demand of Conservative Brexiteers. Although the proposal went down to a record defeat in the House, if the Labour leadership were to instruct Labour MPs to back it – or even abstain – it would pass. However, there would be a substantial rebellion from the Labour back benches.

If Labour lets May’s deal through, it would also provide the perfect pretext for a split by “the Six” – the anti-Corbyn MPs who want to set up their own party.

Members of the Labour leadership’s inner circle have long feared a major schism and have moved quickly whenever an internal row threatened to tip into something bigger. On 6 August 2018, Team Corbyn brought an abrupt halt to an internal investigation into Margaret Hodge after she called Corbyn “an anti-Semitic racist”. On 8 February of this year members of Luciana Berger’s local party were persuaded to withdraw a motion of no confidence in the Liverpool Wavertree MP: she had sharply criticised the leadership over anti-Semitism and refused to say whether a Corbyn government would be a good thing when asked on LBC.

In both cases, the leadership acted because the outrage from within the Parliamentary Labour Party became too loud to ignore. After the Hodge investigation was dropped, a similar probe into Ian Austin, the Labour MP for Dudley North, triggered around the same time, rattled on for nearly four months before being quietly abandoned. In the same way, other local parties have brought forward no confidence motions against their MPs – fellow Corbyn-sceptic Chris Leslie, for example – without pressure, discreet or otherwise, from the party leadership to withdraw.

What was the difference between the two sets of cases? No one at the top of Labour thought that an investigation into Ian Austin, or a local party declaring no confidence in Chris Leslie, would trigger a major split. It is seen as inevitable that some critics of Corbyn’s foreign and economic policy will leave Labour; however, a schism centred around the handling of anti-Semitism in the party risks being far more significant. In the same way, the leadership is willing to give ground on its basic Brexit policy – let it happen with as little involvement from Labour as possible – when it feels the mood is turning sour. After Corbyn’s letter to May did not mention the possibility of a second referendum, the party followed up with an email to members “clarifying” that the option was still on the table, in accordance with the policy agreed at party conference.

Similar calculations play out on the Conservative side when considering whether to back Jeremy Corbyn’s proposed variety of exit. His plan, which has been welcomed in Brussels, would involve substantial alterations to the political declaration, but would leave the withdrawal agreement intact. The crucial difference is membership of a customs union (and giving up the right to strike trade deals) and less regulatory freedom in exchange for more market access.

Although there is a latent majority for such a Brexit in the Commons, the lack of an independent trade policy makes it unacceptable to many Conservative MPs. Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, spoke for several of her cabinet colleagues when she refused to rule out quitting the government if May countenanced staying in a customs union. Given that May’s first priority is keeping the Conservative Party intact, she cannot accept a Brexit end state that imperils ultimate party unity.

The Prime Minister thinks that she has an alternative: to pass her deal without the support of the Labour leadership. She has pinned her hopes on a smattering of policy concessions and the fear of a no-deal Brexit converting enough backbench Labour MPs.

To that end, she has met the leaders of Britain’s biggest trade unions – Unite, the GMB and Unison – as well as Frances O’Grady of the Trades Union Congress. I’m told that in all four meetings May’s copy of the New Statesman was ostentatiously on display. However, while the resulting policy offer – new legislation on environmental and workplace rights – would be a win for the trade unions, it isn’t enough to convert significant numbers of Labour MPs.

The trouble with this plan is that May is fishing in too small a pool to find the numbers she needs to offset her own Tory rebels. Lisa Nandy told the BBC that 40 to 60 Labour MPs are looking for reasons to support May’s deal to prevent a no-deal exit, although other Labour MPs privately think that the figure is lower. “An absolute maximum of 20 Labour MPs would vote for the PM’s deal on a good day,” one well-connected MP estimates. Another puts the figure at 30. Neither is near the number necessary to overturn the 230-vote defeat the withdrawal agreement suffered in January.

So the deadlock continues. Corbyn and May can’t agree on what form Brexit should take, but they do share one belief: the political price of stopping no deal should be borne by someone else.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 15 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The revolution that fuelled radical Islam