Has Corbyn Just Made a Second Referendum More Likely?

It is a vignette beloved of political observers. Upon hearing news of the death of the celebrated French statesman, Charles Talleyrand, the Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich asked, “What did he mean by that?”

Following a rare foray into Brexit politics, one might ask the same of Jeremy Corbyn.

The Labour Leader’s Coventry speech was well trailed. Few were surprised by the words he spoke - though some were that he made the case for Remain far more forcefully than he did at any time in 2016.

At its heart was a call for a new Customs Union with the EU that would give Britain a voice in future trade deals. What kind of voice he was slightly more hazy about though.

The most noticeable reaction was one of relief from his party who have been applying pressure for a policy change. Equally, supporters cheered as at last there was a difference in their party’s policy and the hated Tories’ policy.

Even the CBI made supportive noises, and some said Brussels looked favourably on the plan. Soft Brexit here we come?

Well, no. Because this is not a policy it is a position. Policy implies some form of thought and coherence. While Labour may hope to replicate Turkey’s CU membership. One country was on the way in; the other is leaving. Same terms do not apply. There is little different between Corbyn wanting to have his cake and eat it, and Boris Johnson wanting to have his cake and eat it.

Again and again, Corbyn has predicted he will be prime minister soon. There is perhaps an admission that the momentum he created both before the election and last summer would be hard to sustain over a whole parliament.

Labour’s summer spring stalled in autumn and now the two parties are neck-and-neck in opinion polls.

Remain Tories might despise Hard Brexit, they are unlikely to vote in Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister

What Corbyn has lacked is a wedge between him and the government on Brexit. By asking for a customs union post-Brexit he has created a difference with the government. Now he can try to defeat them in the Commons.

It might be that he succeeds and replicates John Smith who worked tirelessly to defeat the government in the Commons. Smith forced the then Prime Minister John Major to force parts of the Treaty through as confidence measures. He forced his rebels to retreat from their principles and support simultaneously his Maastricht policy and his government.

Whether such a tactic would work today for Theresa May is not certain, given Brexit’s magnitude. Luckily it is a hypothetical that will remain just that. There is one way for an opposition to bring about a change of government: to defeat in on a vote of confidence in and of itself. However much Remain Tories might despise Hard Brexit, they are unlikely to vote in Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister.

Corbyn’s policy makes an early election no more likely. Such thinking is for the overly-excitable.

It does create huge - and welcome - problems for May though. While it is doubtful that any amendment (such as Anna Soubry’s) is be legally enforceable, she cannot just shrug it off. She might make a few lame attempts to put the Customs Union on the table before finding an excuse to take it off; she might even edge her position closer to Corbyn’s.

She might ultimately be able to go further. However, without some form of Customs Union she might not have a majority for any Brexit deal. It is clear that Jeremy Corbyn expects a general election or change of government should the government fail to get parliamentary approval for its Brexit deal. But that requires any Tory leader to be gibberingly insane.

May’s successor might find the best way to solve the issue is a second referendum

There is an alternative. The government is not going to call an early election. They might have lost their use for Prime Minister May though. Her last act might be to go to Brussels and ask for a pause in the Article 50 process. Once that is done, May will be left to do her duty and not leave any metaphorical blood on the Downing Street curtains.

May’s successor might find the best way to solve the issue is a second referendum not a general election. Without Brexit being a certainty, any new Tory leader would most likely come from its phobic wing. He or she would know that there was no parliamentary majority for Hard Brexit and a general election would be risky. So the choice becomes hard “deal or no deal” Brexit or - just confirm that we can stay, Mr Tusk - Remain.

No wonder they were smiling in Brussels.

With a new prime minister for Out, and the leader of the opposition for In. It would be a different election. Opinion polls may show a signs of Bremorse but the economic argument is little different from last time. Farage would return. It would become a nasty fight.

We have absolutely no idea how that would end. For the sight of the CBI campaigning with Jeremy Corbyn, it might be worth it alone. If Remain won, Corbyn would be a winner and have earned his party’s gratitude. If he lost, he would have pitted himself his party’s Northern heartlands and, a lifelong eurosceptic, even lost his reputation for principle.

Did he mean any of this? It is doubtful. He probably wanted a bit of mischief with the potential for a snap election. Instead, he might have bargained for more than he hoped.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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