Only Labour has the power to banish Brexit — it must now seek to use it

A Corbyn-led government could ensure Brexit ends with a whimper rather than the drama of another referendum. 

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One of the sentences you are sure to hear nowadays is: “Brexit is not going to go away anytime soon”. It is true because Conservative Party members will not let it go away. A recent poll showed a majority of those who will elect our next prime minister would prefer achieving Brexit to Scotland saying in the UK, Northern Ireland staying in the UK, or even the survival of their own party. They want Brexit even if it causes severe damage to the economy. The only thing that the poll suggested might make a majority forsake Brexit is the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister. Therein lies the cure for our current Brexit blight and the opportunity for more than one period of Labour government.

In the short term, Brexit fanaticism is extremely scary. The wish to see Brexit happen, even if it leads to the destruction of the Conservatives, is utterly extraordinary coming from Tory party members. Of course Conservative MPs do not want to see that, but their survival in government now seems tied to delivering Brexit, and so most seem prepared to contemplate a no-deal Brexit if that is what it takes. Our only hope of preventing this are a small band of Tory MPs who might put country before party and who could then combine with most opposition MPs to stop this happening.

Even if any attempt to leave with no deal by 31 October fails, or does not happen, the Tory party is not going to give up. Its radicalised membership will do its work by selecting Brexiteers when MPs retire or step down for other reasons, and activists may well deselect some of those who oppose no-deal. At some point those willing to stand up in parliament against no-deal on the Tory benches will shrink to become insignificant. At that point, Conservative members will get their prize, if their party is still in government.

How did the Conservative Party descend to this level of fanaticism about just one issue? Robert Saunders’s recent New Statesman cover story on the “closing of the Conservative mind” is well worth reading. It is particularly useful for those young enough to think that Conservatives were always neoliberals. He writes:

“For most of its history, the Conservative Party has embraced ideas, while disclaiming ideology. Yet today, a party enslaved by ideology is almost barren of thought, just as it faces a historic set of challenges.”

Sauders has some ideas about why this happened but I think it remains a puzzle. One possibility is simply the scale of the Conservatives’ intellectual victory under Margaret Thatcher, such that their Labour opponents showed they could govern the UK that Thatcher bequeathed but with a more human face (including, for instance, higher NHS spending). The Conservatives became, in the words of Theresa May’s 2002 speech, “the nasty party” in voters’ minds. The only way forward was to double down on reactionary xenophobia (William Hague’s  “foreign land”) or ramp up neoliberalism (George Osborne's austerity).

How did the Tory party membership become so radicalised over Brexit when all the talk was about radicalism and entryism in the Labour Party? The reason is that the Tory press, which expended so much ink on talking about an imagined hard-left Labour membership, was also busy radicalising the Conservatives. Brexit embodies a mixture of nationalism, xenophobia, nostalgia and neoliberal zeal that Tory party members cannot resist.

In all this scary stuff there is a potential light at the end of the tunnel, a way out of all this mess. And despite all the talk, it isn’t a Remain victory in a People's Vote. Even if we have another referendum, which seems only likely in a last-minute panic created by an EU ultimatum, it will not deradicalise the Tory membership. If, as seems prudent, the referendum is about the Withdrawal Agreement, then Brexiteers will say that the right question was not asked. If no-deal is on the ballot, then any loss by a few percentage points (and the press will ensure at least that) will simply become unfinished business.

The best way for Brexit to end is not in the drama of another referendum, but instead with a whimper. The only way that can happen, with a radicalised Tory membership, is by electing a Labour government. As I have previously argued, with little challenge, the Tories would oppose any form of softer Brexit a Labour government might propose, so together with Remainers they would have a blocking majority in parliament or the country. How far a Corbyn-led government would go down this road to nowhere we do not know. But he would never be allowed to put a Labour government at risk by pursuing a lost cause, so Brexit would not happen as long as a Labour government remained in power.

What we know a future Labour government would do is undertake many measures designed to help one section of the Brexit electorate, the so-called left behind. Very soon they and other voters would lose interest in Brexit, as politics became all about what the Labour government was actually doing. People would increasingly look back at the years following the 2016 referendum as wasted years, and an example of something never to be repeated.

At first, Conservatives would try and keep the flame of Brexit alive. But doing so would only ensure their unelectability, as Labour would merely have to remind people of the chaos of the Brexit years. Conservative voters and MPs would gradually realise that being the Brexit party was like being the nasty party: a sure way not to be re-elected. It may take one or two more general elections, but as that poll of Conservative Party members suggested, the only thing that could make them give up Brexit is a Corbyn government. That is, in essence, why a Labour government is the best, and I suspect only, way of disposing of the Brexit blight that has infected the Conservative Party and therefore the UK.

This is the light at the end of the tunnel, such that Brexit ends with a whimper. However, you have perhaps already wondered why, if this is all true, so many Labour voters and Remain supporters chose not to vote for the party in the European elections? Why have the Liberal Democrats suddenly managed to break free of the harmful legacy of the 2010-15 coalition government to become one of the four contender parties in opinion polls?

I think there are two answers, one that acted as a trigger and one underlying force. The trigger was the Brexit talks between Corbyn and May. Although political commentators rightly gave these talks little hope of success, their length certainly provoked a fear among Remainers who had voted Labour in 2017 that Brexit could happen in this way. In addition, the European poll seemed like an appropriate time to protest.

The underlying factor is that many voters are now identifying themselves in political terms along a Remain/Leave divide instead of a partisan divide. Remainers were getting fed up with the absence of a strong political voice making the case for Remain, and instead hearing endless discussion of impossible Brexit plans from the European Research Group. All they hear from Labour (because most voters do not read political speeches) is the latest version of the party’s position on a second referendum. Labour seems to be muffling its own voice on the issue of the moment. The Liberal Democrat campaign slogan of "Bollocks to Brexit" was just want Remainers had been waiting to hear.

Which brings us to the current shadow cabinet meetings. Corbyn has moved another iota, agreeing that any referendum would include “a real choice” for Remainers, but not moving nearly as far as many want. There is a certain symmetry in the two main parties’ position on Brexit, but also major differences. The symmetry is that, throughout May’s leadership, both parties wanted some form of compromise relative to what most of their party members wanted. Both parties eventually encouraged an insurgent party, the Brexit Party for the Tories and the Liberal Democrats for Labour, that was able to take a large number of their votes by offering policies that forsaked compromise. But there the similarity ends.

The Conservative Party will decide, in one way or another, to come to some kind of accommodation with the insurgent party. That will happen by changing its Brexit policy to mirror the policy of its rival, or by cooperating with the insurgent party at any general election, or both. The Tories, as they always do, will adapt to the threat they face in order to stay in power. 

The Labour leadership, by contrast, is in denial. All the evidence points to their failure to campaign for Remain as being a critical threat to a general election victory, an election that could come very soon. Even before the European elections there were as many Remain as Leave maginals, because many working class Labour voters had changed their mind since 2016.

In addition, it has now been shown that Labour Leavers do not feel particularly strongly about Labour taking a Remain position, while the party’s Remainers care a great deal. I have not come across a single reputable pollster that suggests Labour are increasing their general election chances by maintaining their pro-Brexit position, and plenty who argue that to win they have to back Remain.

The argument that Labour needs to support Brexit to win the election is no longer credible. Instead the leadership’s support for Brexit puts at serious risk a Labour government that could potentially rule for more than a decade. When you add in the impossibility of a Labour government enacting Brexit, I just do not see why Lexiters remain in denial.

Incremental moves until conference also makes no sense as a strategy. The longer Remain voters get used to thinking they are going to vote Green or Liberal Democrat, and the longer the Labour leadership resists what appears to be overwhelming force, there is a strong risk that many will carry that habit into a general election, if only because Labour’s eventual change will lack credibility.

If the shadow cabinet are truly interested in maximising Labour’s chance of winning power, they have to change the party’s official position to one of support for Remain. No one is asking Corbyn himself to campaign for Remain, and it would probably be better if he didn’t, because there are plenty on his frontbench who can do so more credibly. But their campaigning would have to reflect the official position Labour should occupy, which is to become the only party that can make Brexit go away.

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