Corbyn and May’s fantasist double act is driving MPs towards a new Brexit referendum
Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in the House of Commons yesterday was one of the worst I have ever heard in nearly 20 years in parliament – even worse than his speeches two weeks ago
This morning the prime minister will have woken with the illusion that her tenacity has bought her a sustainable parliamentary majority for Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn, too, will be relieved that the spotlight will shift to Brussels, and away from his own bungling role in the Brexit affair.
But this mutual relief will be short-lived.
For all that Theresa May has built a reputation for being determined, our European partners will now regard her as hopelessly capricious. It was she who demanded that the much-maligned “backstop” be crafted and now she has ratted on her own agreement, lining up with the hardline ERG and the DUP. They will support her only as long as she delivers on a reopening of the withdrawal agreement to secure legally binding changes, which the EU insists it will not accept.
The backstop started life as a holding position while the Brexiteers scrabbled for a magic technological solution that could enable the world’s first completely open border between jurisdictions operating two separate customs regimes.
Readers may remember the Chequers summit last year when the cabinet was forced to disown magic of this kind, and there have been no requests for patents being taken out on a new solution since then. The backstop was there until an alternative could be devised and put in place.
Now Tory MPs say they want “alternative arrangements” to the arrangement that was to be in place until alternative arrangements were made.
As the clock ticks down towards 29 March, there is a simple truth that has been obscured by all the theatre. Brexit and an open border in Ireland are mutually incompatible objectives. They were in 2016. They have been throughout the negotiation. They are today.
This inexorable logic will come back to bite the prime minister in a fortnight’s time, and for as long as she tries to indulge the Brexit fantasists who insist this is all resolvable if only enough verve is applied to the task.
When it does, attention will return to what history may record as more extraordinary even than the government’s incompetence and cavalier brinkmanship in this process: the aid given to the most right-wing parts of the Conservative Party by Jeremy Corbyn.
His speech in the House of Commons yesterday was one of the worst I have ever heard in nearly 20 years in parliament – even worse than his speeches two weeks ago. Only unruly barracking from Tory children on the government side drowned the embarrassed silence in which Labour MPs cringed through his performance.
He shambled through a series of platitudes and logical inconsistencies, all of them an alibi for his role as willing midwife to Brexit. Once the deal was voted down earlier this month, and his own no-confidence motion had failed, he could have seized the moment to come out in favour of a Final Say referendum. A majority could then have been assembled for it, and we could now be beginning the legislative process to bring one about. But he chose to sit tight.
I keep being told: “Wait for Jeremy.” But I increasingly doubt that he and his closest advisers have any intention of moving. Since there will be no Brexit dividend but, instead, a price to be paid by a resentful electorate, Corbyn calculates that he can reap a different kind of Brexit dividend: votes for his version of far-left socialism. Furious Brexiteers, who feel betrayed, and furious young Remainers, who feel that their future has been stolen from them, will be united in hostility to a Conservative government. And then the revolution can begin.
A large number of Labour MPs view this as a hopelessly irresponsible course and want to change tack. It is that thought more than 120 now support the People’s Vote campaign if push comes to shove.
The coming month is the Labour Party’s last and best chance to change course, and – at last – play its part in rescuing Britain from Brexit. There will be a moment for it to do so as the fudge of yesterday melts away in a fortnight’s time and the reality of no deal once again looms. Labour, like the rest of us, cannot wait for Jeremy much longer.
But even if he continues to fail, there is still the possibility that a humbled prime minister comes back from Brussels and realises the only way to salvage her deal is to put it to the public herself in a people’s vote. It is still the best way out for the country – and for the beleaguered leaders of the two biggest parties.
Sir Vince Cable is leader of the Liberal Democrats and backs a people’s vote