I Agree with Vince: On Brexit Will Cable Be Jeremy Corbyn's Sage or Kingmaker?

The Conservative government has left the National Health Service in a humanitarian crisis. Their flagship welfare reforms - Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payments - are in disarray and being reversed in the courts. Homelessness is on the increase, partially due to the lack of a serious housing policy.

Theresa May is being held hostage by her party’s hard-right. Boris Johnson openly challenges the prime minister’s authority.

To appease the hardliners May has backtracked on forming a post-Brexit customs union with the EU. This threatens damaging trade barriers and puts Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement in jeopardy. Cabinet ministers rebuffed May’s compromise to remain halfway in the European single market. A wide majority of voters disapprove of May’s handling of the EU negotiations.

And yet, despite opposing such a weak and divided government, Labour ties with the Tories in the opinion polls.

Polling is not gospel but at the last election, as the campaign progressed, it did forecast Labour’s rapid rise and the collapse of a huge Tory lead. Using different techniques, YouGov predicted a hung parliament well in advance of polling day.

As it currently stands, Labour could best hope to become the largest party in another hung parliament.

Any Corbyn/Cable deal would not get the fanfare of a Rose Garden moment as in 2010

Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn could simply form a minority government and rely on the discretion of other parties to vote through legislation - but this leaves Labour’s agenda in limbo.

Corbyn appears to have ruled out a coalition government, so his remaining option is a confidence and supply deal.

As the third largest party at present, the Scottish National Party would seem an obvious bet, but the SNP view every policy through their independence prism. This is risky if Corbyn wants to lead a strong and stable government, especially as much of Labour’s agenda is on English matters.

It will horrify Labour supporters who cannot forgive their coalition with the Tories, but this leaves the Liberal Democrats as Labour’s clearest allies. With the Tories as the Brexit party, it is near impossible to imagine the pro-EU Vince Cable supporting them. Labour is the only alternative.

It may also be harder for Labour supporters to swallow in terms of policy. Corbyn’s appeal is his plea for a transformational politics. As May has learned with the Democratic Unionist Party, confidence and supply gives a junior party influence over government policy, but it allows the ruling party to govern alone.

Labour members might have seen the Lib Dems as Tory lackeys between 2010 and 2015. The Tory view was quite different.

There is some common ground between Corbyn and the Lib Dem leader. Cable is not from the Orange Book wing of his party that found coalition with the Tories easy. He was a Labour member and a special adviser to John Smith in the 1970s. Well into his Lib Dem career Cable retained close links to Labour figures such as Gordon Brown.

Labour voters might approve of Cable’s call for a land value tax on the wealthy, direct rule of overseas territories to prevent offshore tax dodging, and repossession of empty properties to tackle housing shortages. The Lib Dems have long advocated minor tax increases to boost NHS spending. There is plenty the two parties can agree on - especially the need to invest in public services.

On other aspects of Labour’s platform, however, Cable is more sceptical. Having privatised Royal Mail as business secretary and unfavourably compared their economic strategy to Venezuela’s, he would rigorously scrutinise Labour’s spending and public ownership plans.

While Labour would abolish university tuition fees, Cable was pivotal to the Lib Dems abandoning this policy. Instead Cable advocates for lifelong learning accounts, potentially funded by a graduate tax, which he argues would better improve social mobility.

Any Corbyn/Cable deal would not get the fanfare of a Rose Garden moment as in 2010. It would be a business deal and Cable would be keen to maximise advantage for his party by showing how the Lib Dems can restrain Labour. The fates of smaller parties in coalitions are not great. A confidence and supply arrangement would mean Labour either putting its plans to parliament without a majority, or every bill becoming one on which Cable can scrawl yellow ink.

Of course, this hypothesising will be irrelevant if Labour wins a majority. Corbyn has already defied expectations. But nor is there room for complacency.

According to a YouGov poll, Labour risks losing a significant proportion of younger voters and being crushed by a Tory landslide, if it stays committed to Brexit.

It also predicts the Lib Dems - who call for an “exit from Brexit” through a second referendum - surging from single digits to over twenty points.

It will be down to Labour to take the initiative 

This should be cause for reflection. Labour is taking a tactical approach to Brexit, pledging to respect the result of the referendum - a sudden U-turn risks damaging their credibility.

But the country will eventually face a crunch point. As the harm inflicted by Brexit becomes clearer - reflected in civil service impact assessments - demand for a policy reversal may become overwhelming.

It will be down to Labour to take the initiative and offer voters the right to change course. That is no less democratic.

Nick Clegg became a pariah of the left for forming a coalition government with David Cameron, but Corbyn decisively losing would make the despair of 2010 pale in comparison. Cooperating with the Lib Dems would be preferable, but it would be awkward and politically risky for Corbyn personally.

A Lib Dem resurgence could actually be of benefit to Labour. In 2015, the Lib Dems were demolished to eight MPs, primarily thanks to their voters defecting to Cameron’s Tories. Brexit gives the Lib Dems a chance to rebuild by targeting those former seats. The result, however, may still be a Labour minority.

A solution proposed by pro-European Labour MPs is for the party’s Brexit stance to be decided by a ballot of its mass membership.

In an age of such unpredictable politics, which could see an election before Britain leaves the EU, nothing should be ruled out.

An “exit from Brexit” may become the key for Labour to win outright. This is not just a matter of opposing Brexit - it would be making a pragmatic choice to gain power and address every other national crisis after nearly a decade of Tory rule.

More about the author

About the author

Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.

Follow Jacob on Twitter.

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