Brexit is unlikely to happen if the Tories lose office before the UK leaves the EU

Both Conservative Brexiteers and Remainers would seek to thwart a soft Brexit negotiated by a Corbyn-led government. 

NS

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There is more talk of a general election, although of course that does not mean it will happen. In that context, I frequently hear people say that an election would do nothing to get the country out of the huge Brexit hole it has dug itself. I strongly disagree. If there is an election before we leave the EU, and if Labour forms the next government, I think it would make a huge difference. Unless Labour win so many seats that they have a huge parliamentary majority, I think the chances are that Brexit would not happen at all.

Let us suppose that Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer manage to negotiate some form of soft Brexit with the EU. The crucial question would then be the attitude of the Conservative opposition. As a result of losing the election (if not before) they will have a new leader and, given the attitude of most Conservative members, that leader is likely to be a Brexiteer. As the Brexiteers in the current party find it hard to accept the hard Brexit proposed by Theresa May, they will almost certainly oppose any soft Brexit negotiated by Labour. Brexiteers are happiest when complaining, and so the line they will probably take on any Corbyn Brexit deal is that it has betrayed the “will of the people”.

Another reason they will oppose Labour’s soft Brexit is that they do not want the party to succeed where the Conservatives have failed. It would be the ultimate humiliation if the Tories, increasingly defined as the Brexit party, could not pass a withdrawal agreement but a Labour government could. 

The Conservative Party ever more resembles the US Republican Party, with a right-wing activist base fired up by the Murdoch press and other partisan titles. The health care programme that Barack Obama successfully introduced was similar to that passed by the Republican senator and presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Massachusetts in 2006. Despite this, the Republicans in opposition unequivocally rejected Obama’s reforms and fought them with all their might.

More moderate Conservative MPs might be tempted to support Labour because they themselves would be quite happy with a soft Brexit. They could quite plausibly argue that their aim should be to get Brexit over the line and leave a future Conservative government to further distance the UK from the EU. But something we have learned over the last few years is that Tory Brexit policy is strongly shaped by the Brexiteers, with the rest of the party extremely reluctant to break with this line. Furthermore, many Conservative Remainers may be happy to see Brexit fail. As a result, Corbyn cannot count on rebel Tories coming to his aid.

The final reason the Conservatives, and their supporters in the press, would not want to assist Labour in delivering Brexit is that they will scent the chance to embarrass the new government. There are plenty of Labour MPs, backed up by many more party members, who do not want to see Brexit at all, and might vote against any agreement. In that situation, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP might also oppose a deal. The Conservatives, still in shock after losing office, would be extremely unlikely to assist a Labour government in difficulty.

With the Tories opposing any form of soft Brexit, Corbyn’s actions will be guided by what might happen if his Brexit plans were ever put to a referendum. Labour have now said they would hold a referendum on any deal they negotiated, and they would not be allowed to backtrack on this because a combination of Tories (yes, I know, but see above), smaller parties and Labour rebels would insist it be held.

A People’s Vote under a Labour government would be a very different affair from anything held under the Tories. Conservative politicians, and more importantly the Brexit press, would oppose it with all the vigour we have seen over the last few years. As so many Brexit supporters derive their devotion to the cause from the press they read, they are likely to follow that press in declaring Labour’s Brexit deal to be a betrayal. Remainers, of course, would also oppose it. Labour would find both Remainers and many Brexiteers campaigning against them. They would not have a chance, and Brexit would fail.

A Labour government backing Leave in a Brexit referendum looks like a lose-lose option. It would fail to win a majority for its Brexit deal and be humiliated by the result. Once the Conservatives make their opposition clear, Labour should see this coming.

But how do they avoid that outcome, as the clock will still be ticking on an extended Article 50? The issue cannot be kicked into the long grass, and Labour will have a manifesto commitment to try and get a Brexit deal. One possibility is that, after talking to other party leaders, Corbyn will announce that a Brexit deal is impossible due to Conservative and minor party intransigence and propose to MPs the revocation of Article 50. That could be passed by a narrow majority (the Tories and perhaps a few Labour MPs would oppose). Corbyn will endure a day of negative headlines in the Brexit press, but just another day in a continuum of negative headlines is hardly a great cost. Most of the country will breathe a large sigh of relief.

If this is the case, with the UK likely to remain in the EU, why would Labour propose to enact Brexit in its manifesto? For a start, Labour could not be sure what the Conservative opposition would do, and it might hope to get a majority large enough to overcome its own rebel MPs. But the main reason is the same as it was in 2017. The party will want to avoid the election being about the merits or otherwise of Brexit. The Tories will want to pin the blame for their failure to achieve Brexit on Labour and, were Labour to switch to being a Remain party, that tactic would probably be successful. Having come this far as a Brexit party, Labour will be on much firmer ground in an election if it continues to say it wants to secure a deal and has a better chance of succeeding than the Tories who have failed for three years.

Would it be ironic for a Labour government to fail to enact a form of Brexit because of Tory opposition? If you think about it, the Conservative government has failed to enact a form of Brexit largely due to Tory opposition. The reason we are in this Brexit hole is that the Brexiteers, who won a mandate for a soft Brexit, then decided that only the hardest of Brexits would do. It would be poetic justice and good for the country if Brexit failed as a result.

 Simon Wren-Lewis is Emeritus Professor of Economics and Fellow of Merton College, University of Oxford. He blogs at mainlymacro.