On Brexit John McDonnell Is not Even Trying to Hold May’s Government to Account

They say that you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Admittedly, I have never tried. Nor do I know anyone who has tried. However, I assume that the dictum is correct. What one can create depends very much on the ingredients one starts with.

Since 23rd June Labour has not been left with many good ingredients. Theresa May’s assumption of the premiership has allowed the Tories to present themselves as a fresh government. The prime minister herself has outrageously claimed that her government will implement a Brexit policy as the “will of the people”. Of course, what she means is that she will implement the will of the 52% who voted to leave the EU. Internal and external critics are derided as anti-democrats; judges who try to impose some degree of constraint upon the executive are denounced as “Enemies of the People”.

The pessimists who thought the referendum campaign represented a low in political discourse have been confirmed as optimists. Bad ingredients.

As May is refusing to give a running commentary on her Brexit negotiations, the public have no idea whether they are heading towards a “soft Brexit” or a “hard Brexit”. All we know is that Brexit means… You take my point.

The reality of the parliamentary arithmetic means that should the government be forced to allow parliament an authorising vote on triggering Article 50 then May will be dependent on opposition votes to get her policy through. It looked pretty tough sacking so many ministers back in July; having George Osborne, Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry on the backbenches does not look so smart now.

With eighteen words Labour just gave up any ability it had to influence the government

Labour is not in a strong position but there is potential, if not to stop Brexit, to influence Brexit. Anyone wanting to see this would therefore then have been heartened when John McDonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, said: “We are insisting on full, tariff-free access to the Single Market for our businesses because this is the best way to protect jobs and living standards here. Labour wants to see an ambitious Brexit Britain.”

Music to the ears of any lily-livered, liberal elite (ie 48% of referendum voters). However, he then said, “We must not try to re-fight the referendum or push for a second vote and, if Article 50 needs to be triggered in Parliament, Labour will not seek to block or delay it. It is time we all were more positive about Brexit.”

16 million bowler-hatted establishment types (or at least those listening) choked on their Waitrose muesli. They need not have worried though. They should have had faith. As McDonnell said: Labour would use “moral pressure” to persuade the government. You know, the kind the kind of "moral pressure" the left used successfully against Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. It was this kind of “moral pressure” which stopped Tony Blair  joining the Iraq War. While McDonnell may have had no choice but to bring a knife to a gunfight at the OK Corral, he could have done better than a butter knife.

With eighteen words Labour just gave up any ability it had to influence the government, to table amendments on any government bill. Whatever May publishes Labour will have to vote for it. It can quibble and question but now it is committed to Theresa May’s Brexit on Theresa May's timetable. Were her Article 50 policy to propose the slaughter of the new born, John McDonnell - who famously wanted to wade through vomit to vote against the Conservative’s Welfare Bill -  would apparently vote for it. Even if McDonnell’s “moral pressure” works and May lays out an acceptable negotiating position, then how would Labour ensure (committed as it now is to not delaying the government) that she sticks to her aims.

Somehow in a political world where his opponents are creating traps for Labour, McDonnell has fallen into one of his own making.

The real will of the people is not just the 52%

Assuming the British people do not undergo a Damascene conversion, Brexit will happen. It may be economically foolish but that is the imperfect nature of direct democracy. A clever opposition would challenge the mantra that the Tories now represent the will of the people. An opposition which seeks to get the best terms for Britain’s new relationship with Europe could claim to be representing the whole country: the real will of the people is not just the 52%. Instead Labour just gave up any opportunity to shape our future relationship with Europe.

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have a long history of euroscepticism. They lag the Tories in the polls. They are so desperate they claim similarities with Donald Trump. Their one chance of winning the next election is if Theresa May makes such a hash of Brexit that the voting populace would turn to anyone in preference. It’s almost as if they are not trying.

Bad ingredients yes. However, I am sure if I tried very hard, I could make something out of a pig’s ear. Maybe not a silk purse but something. John McDonnell started with a pig’s ear and ended with one.

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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