Corbyn’s Shift is Pure Politics. Brexit Could Be About Two Stark Choices

There is a cliche of fiction and film where the hero intervenes at the last minute to turn events dramatically and decisively in a positive direction.

So, as Labour once again considers its position on Brexit, it has been tempting for supporters to see this as a seminal moment in the Brexit debate. This narrative goes that Jeremy Corbyn has been waiting for the right moment to plunge the Remain dagger into the government’s Brexit policy.

This may be the case. Or not.

The omens do not look good. In the week leading up to Jeremy Corbyn's big speech, spokespeople have given off different signals as to policy. More often than not they have hinted that Labour is prepared to negotiate towards remaining in “a customs union”.

On the surface, this makes logical sense. In order to avoid a “hard border” between the Republic of Ireland and the North, the two entities would have to share regulatory alignment of traded goods etc. However, some talk of this is disingenuous. Post-Brexit Britain cannot be part of “a customs union” while also negotiating its own free trade agreements, as Andrew Gwynne suggested on the Daily Politics. Outside the European Union, Britain cannot “influence” EU trade policy if part of a customs union, as John McDonnell hoped it could.

Moreover, is “a customs union” even on offer from the European Union? Time and again, the EU 27 have told Britain that it cannot pick and choose the parts of EU membership it wishes to accept and which is does not. A club is a club and has rules. Members help write the rules and accept the good and the bad. Non-members do not have such a voice.

A position that has evolved may continue to evolve

Recently, Donald Tusk called Theresa May’s new “basket” policy where Britain would diverge where it chose to and not in other matters an illusion. He might also have told the prime minister that “Brexit means Brexit”.

Asking for a bespoke customs unions smacks of the same CloudCuckooLand thinking. The EU does not need a new customs union because it already has one.

All but one member of that union are members of the EU. The exception is Turkey whose arrangement includes goods but not services and agriculture. However, that arrangement includes customs checks at borders so would not solve the Irish Problem. This similar arrangement still denies the UK the benefits of the Single Market and it requires Turkey to align its trade policy to the EU’s when seeking trade deals.

The reality for Turkey has been that countries such as Canada have thought of the country as an afterthought not an alternative when negotiating trade deals. A similar arrangement would certainly not see Britain at the front of the free trade queue.

None of this is to write off Labour’s fumble at a new position on Brexit. A position that has evolved may continue to evolve. In negotiation, they may find that they have negotiated a customs union that is, in fact, the existing customs union.

Labour’s new policy also shows that despite his successful defeat at the election, and subsequent consolidation of power on the National Executive Committee, Corbyn is not in control of his party’s Brexit policy. There are substantial enough numbers of rebels, soft Brexiters and Remainers to have eased him towards a different policy. These rebels - and Remain-inclined members - must continue the pressure.

Most of all, Corbyn’s new policy is an excellent piece of politics. Labour is now in a position to hurt the government where it counts - in parliament. Together with the Lib Dems and the SNP, Labour can inflict defeats on the government if it can attract Tory rebels such as Anna Soubry, Ken Clark and Dominic Grieve.

So far May has shifted position since the election, nudged by a subtle European Union. Slice by slice Brexit becomes softer, and May has been adept at not giving casus belli to her most truculent colleagues. She may now find herself in a pincer movement between parliament and the EU 27.  

The result might be to create a zombie government caught between its extremes. Defeating the government is the easy part. Bringing that government down is harder: only a specific vote of confidence can bring about a general election. Meaning Soubry et al. can vote until the cows come home against the government on Brexit, then the next day walk into the government lobbies to sustain that same government and prevent Prime Minister Corbyn.

There is a difference between what a good opposition can say, and what a good government should do

It would be churlish not to acknowledge Labour’s approach as positive. Corbyn will create problems for the government. Good - that is his job. But let’s not mistake good policy for good politics, or confuse strategy with tactics. There is a difference between what a good opposition can say, and what a good government should do.

Moreover, this is theatre. Ultimately our relationship with the EU is about better living standards, economic growth, jobs, and having an economy strong enough to improve the NHS, transport and schools.

What is slowly being exposed is the magical thinking of Brexiters who contend that Britain can have the best of all worlds. The more exposed that thinking becomes the greater the likelihood that the impossibilism of Brexit gets pushed into the future to avoid unpalatable decisions.

These unpalatable choice have already been put off in negotiation. Avoiding a cliff-edge, a transition period will mean Britain will only leave the European Union in name next year, remaining part of the Single Market and the Customs Union while we tussle with the impossible. And for a nation such as Britain - a nuclear power, UN Security Council member and G7 economy - the lack of voice within those structures would be, in the long run, intolerable.

There may come a crunch. But that crunch will not be between Hard Brexit and Soft Brexit, but between leaving the Single Market and Customs Union or remaining within them. The choice will be between crashing out and staying in.

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Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.

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