Labour's Brexit challenge to the next Tory PM has come at the perfect moment
The pressure to put any deal to a second vote could be politically very damaging for the Tories. Their survival depends on Brexit
Labour’s new push for a second referendum is the right call and at the right time.
Jeremy Corbyn has challenged the next prime minister to back putting his deal or no deal to the public with Labour campaigning for Remain in a new referendum. The shift brings to an end what critics have called Labour’s “constructive ambiguity” and fence-sitting over Brexit. Labour is certainly unambiguously opposed to a Tory-fuelled Brexit.
The party is making the right call. Public support for Brexit continues to weaken since 2016. More voters see Brexit as a mistake with 51 per cent supporting Remain and only 44 per cent for Leave. The will of the people has shifted undeniably as Brexit negotiations have stalled. A second vote would almost certainly have a different result.
The pro-Remain majority grows as the risk of a no-deal Brexit increases. While neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Hunt have given a consistent guarantee that Britain will leave the EU deal or no deal by Halloween, this is the majority view of the Tory grassroots. It is they who will give the new leader their mandate and it is they that Johnson or Hunt may find impossible to ignore.
Leaving without a deal was never genuinely considered during the referendum. Since 2016 the Tories have shifted from promising Brexit would deliver a booming economy to wanting Brexit at any cost. As the original optimism morphs into fatalism, so too we find support for Brexit beginning to wither on the electoral vine.
The clear majority in parliament opposed to no deal mirrors the public’s disapproval. Labour has resisted leaving the EU without a deal for fear this exposes the NHS and other public services to privatisation with consumer protections and environmental standards watered down. As it has now become clear no deal is the choice of the Tory faithful, Labour’s shift was inevitable as a consequence of its starting position.
This isn’t to say that everyone in Labour shares the same view even if the party has a clear position. Such differences are likely to continue, and are unavoidable. Today’s announcement should at least avoid this internal disagreement stopping the party from moving forward.
Labour’s new position also comes at the right time. With an overwhelming majority of its membership supporting Remain and with concerns turning to other pro-Remain parties like the Liberal Democrats, perhaps Labour’s shift was inevitable. But it is important that it let Brexit talks run their full course. A Final Say referendum should be called now, given that all available options have been exhausted. This is democracy in action – to prevent it is to fear voters, not show them respect.
After years of being tarred a party led by a Eurosceptic, Corbyn’s team can not, with any credibility, be labelled “Remoaners”. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, Labour did not call for a second referendum to overturn the first shortly after it was held. Instead, it remained open to supporting Brexit if the economy and our current rights in full were protected. It is only now that these are more at risk than ever under a Boris or Hunt no deal taking Britain over a cliff edge.
Some will likely criticise as inconsistent Labour’s position of supporting Remain in a second vote, but keeping their options open if they won the next general election. But there should be no such concerns. The options before us are either a bad deal rejected repeatedly by parliament or a no deal that MPs have vowed to block. Both options are unpopular with the public.
Until there is a general election, there is no mandate to negotiate a new deal from scratch. Labour is right to leave open the possibility of opening a fresh round of talks if it were in government.
Labour’s challenge to the new prime minister to put any deal to a second vote is politically very damaging for the Tories. Their survival depends on Brexit. A failed vote would confirm they were out of touch, a success for no deal would highlight the weakness that meant a deal could not be approved in parliament.
No party comes out of the current Brexit deadlock without its share of cuts and scrapes. But right now Tory leadership candidates are promising rich pickings off the magic money tree that could bankrupt Britain if no deal doesn’t do that first. This means that Labour’s shift can finally cut through the Brexit fog to deliver a workable way forward with public support that is open to a deal or to remaining in the EU. For the moment, Labour looks like the only means to achieve either of those outcomes.
Thom Brooks is dean of Durham Law School.