If Labour followed Napoleon’s advice never to interrupt an enemy who is making a mistake, it would never speak of Brexit. It has sometimes felt as if this is the opposition strategy: letting the Conservatives stew in their own calamity, avoiding engagement with the issue except when forced to say something. Events of the past week demonstrate the pattern. Labour has tabled an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill calling on the government to retain every benefit of membership of the single market. This is advertised as seeking “the softest possible Brexit”.
This is a welcome new tone, but the aspiration for seamless trade with Europe is uncontroversial. The problem, as Theresa May has discovered, is the impossibility of achieving that goal while rejecting obligations of membership – contributions to EU budgets; acceptance of European court arbitration; free movement of people. The implication of Labour’s new line is that it would compromise on those points, yet the front bench is shy about saying so. What is billed as new policy is largely a rhetorical swerve, forced on the opposition by changes to the withdrawal bill in the House of Lords. Many opposition MPs support a peers’ amendment urging membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), which would keep the UK in the single market. A bunch of Tory MPs like that model, too, which makes it possible that the government could be forced to obey. Instead, Labour whips will split the soft Brexit vote, letting Mrs May off the hook.
Why? A reasonable argument is that the EEA is an imperfect, off-the-shelf model that would lock the UK into too subordinate a relationship with Brussels, and that Labour cannot be seen to settle for such a mediocre deal. A fuller explanation includes divisions in the party on a range of Brexit issues: immigration control; the feasibility of another referendum; whether or not the single market is an impediment to a radical left economic programme. Those tensions are in part ideological, but also reflect the awkward electoral calculus for a party whose members are broadly pro-European but whose seats in parliament include many leave-voting areas. So Jeremy Corbyn combines deference to the referendum outcome with reluctance to sound too enthusiastic about Brexit. It is not an easy balance. The longer this goes on, the likelier it gets that frustration and disillusionment build on all sides.
A year has passed since last year’s election and Labour has not built on the momentum it gathered then. Ambiguity around Mr Corbyn’s Brexit instincts was an advantage when leavers and remainers could each think their needs might be met by Labour. That effect is wearing off. A difference now is that departure day is much closer and Mrs May’s methods have brought the process to a murky impasse. Tory squabbling this week shows yet again how the prime minister is hemmed in by fanatics in her party. Michel Barnier, the commission’s chief negotiator, on Friday sounded justifiably dismissive of the government’s latest incoherent customs proposal.
Labour has accepted the logic of maximum integration with the single market and customs union, thereby usurping terrain of economic rationality vacated by the government. But Mr Corbyn looks too often as if he has been bounced into sensible EU stances. When Labour does the right thing on Brexit it squanders the advantage by doing it gradually, almost reluctantly. The defence of that approach is that, on such a fissile subject, the opposition is better off lying low, avoiding upsetting people and waiting for the Tories to fail.
That approach isn’t working, perhaps because it views Brexit through a narrow lens of party advantage when the crisis is of national dimensions. The vacancy is for politicians who will be unflinchingly honest about the difficulties ahead, the shape of the compromises required, and their cost. It is not enough to be ready, for the sake of party cohesion, to shuffle towards “the softest possible Brexit”. True courage and leadership require active, persistent, public advocacy to explain why that course is necessary in the interests of the whole country.
- This article was amended on 11 June 2018. An earlier version referred to “a brace of Tory MPs”. We meant to refer to more than two so this has been changed to refer to a bunch of Tory MPs.