Tuesday, 17 January 2017

The only road to Brexit

Brexit still means Brexit. Or possibly harder Brexit. This is the message from the government after Theresa May finally outlined the framework on which it intends to negotiate the country’s withdrawal from the European Union. While the government is clearly still searching for the details of its plan, at least it has the twelve chapter headings now.

Briefly, when the Prime Minister said both houses of Parliament would get a vote on the final deal, there were gasps of relief, particularly from Remainers, that it might be subject to proper scrutiny, be open to amendment and a settlement which satisfies the vast majority might be found. But, the government has been swift to knock such notions on the head. If MPs feel that the deal on offer isn't adequate, the only alternative would be no deal; better than a bad deal, as the Prime Minister said.

It renders any vote somewhat superfluous. A debate on the terms of exit is not what the government wants; instead, as David Davis told parliament after the Prime Minister had stopped speaking:

‘What we want to have is a vote so the House can be behind and support the policy, which we are quite sure they will approve of when we get there.’

A united parliament, a united country, pulling the same way. No longer little Britain, shackled by Europe, but a Britain looking outward to the world, trading freely with whomever it chooses. This is the vision of the government. With so much rhetorical bombast on display, one half expects Sir Francis Drake to set sail on the high seas once more and plunder the Spanish Main just to show we can.

Parliament, though, isn’t of one mind and neither is the country. No matter how much Theresa May and others might implore ‘Remoaners’ to join this national independence crusade, many are equally determined to hold their position, much like Brexiters would have done had the EU referendum result gone the opposite way.

The 48% then - those who opposed Britain leaving the EU - can they rely upon the official Opposition to champion their cause? Er, no. As far as the two major parties are concerned, their cause is lost and is best ignored. Only Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, makes any effort in this respect and argues that any final deal should be put in a referendum.

Instead, Jeremy Corbyn came out with this:

‘She [Theresa May] has said “leave the single market” then at the same time “we want access to the single market”. I’m not quite sure how that’s going to go down in Europe.... she seems to be wanting to have her cake and eat it.'

Before adding: ‘I think we need to have a deal that ensures we have access to the single market.’

Please excuse me for failing to see the enormous gulf in these two positions.

It is this type of leadership that has frustrated so many long time Labour supporters with Jeremy Corbyn.

Jeremy Corbyn is currently the subject of a ‘populist’ relaunch. 'Let Jeremy be Jeremy' is, apparently, the plan. Aware that he and the Labour Party are somewhat lagging behind Theresa May and her government, it is understandable why Mr Corbyn’s team thought the New Year provided an opportunity to repackage the Labour leader in the hope he might appear to lead a more dynamic opposition.

As part of this relaunch, just a week ago, Jeremy Corbyn delivered his own speech on Brexit which was supposed to provide clarity on Labour’s position. By the end of the day, Corbyn was insisting immigration from the EU wasn’t too high but Labour wasn’t wedded to freedom of movement.

Labour has a huge opportunity to tackle the government on a host of major issues, not just Brexit; the NHS lurches from one crisis to another, delayed decisions on Heathrow, complete inactivity on the Southern rail shambles. But, it seems that for many, on too many occasions, Labour has gone missing from the battlefield, its major figures just not up to the task, save for a few notable exceptions such as Clive Lewis, Angela Rayner and Sir Keir Starmer, the last of whom cannot be expected competently to tackle the government over its Brexit spasms while Labour lacks a coherent policy itself.

Of huge concern should be the Fabian Society report, published earlier in the month, which said it was virtually impossible for a ‘too weak’ Labour Party to win a general election. Support could shrink to as low as 20 per cent and at the next election it could be left with fewer seats than since the 1930s. Its only viable return to power would be to seek alliances with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. They show no inclination to forge such a partnership with Mr Corbyn's Labour Party.

This underlines a continual agonising, gnawing fear felt by those Labour supporters who aren’t convinced by the Jeremy Corbyn project and by many who believe it is a vital for all governments to have a decent opposition; the fear that not only is this Labour opposition failing to challenge the government sufficiently, but also that for many years to come no viable opposition is likely to emerge. 

The government, for many understandable reasons, is struggling to make sense of a vote to leave the European Union; a vote that was never meant to be lost and was intended, by David Cameron, to salve the running sores within the Conservative Party. But, as it tries to formulate the most important policy package this country will face in many generations, there is hardly a time in recent history when a government needed a robust opposition more.