Nobody in life gets everything they want all of the time. We have to live with the cards we have been dealt and the decisions we have made, good or bad. So it is in politics. The majority of MPs who have expressed their opposition to a no-deal Brexit have to live with two realities they may find unacceptable. Jeremy Corbyn is a committed socialist, careless of division and widely distrusted. Boris Johnson is a prime minister steering Britain full tilt towards a moment of national peril propelled solely by the exigencies of extreme rightwing politics. Yet it is Corbyn who has tried to break the deadlock.
It is against this background that MPs beyond the rightwing English nationalist laager into which Johnson has locked his party must assess Corbyn’s offer to create a time-limited national government. Its sole mission would be to agree an extension of the date for leaving the EU beyond 31 October. This would allow a general election to take place, with Labour campaigning on its promise to be “committed to a public vote on the terms of leaving the EU, including an option to remain”. It will be a steady state administration, enacting no new policies, nor initiating any new spending, lasting for the few weeks necessary to bridge into the next parliament.
Voters will have the opportunity to express their support for no deal or for a second referendum with Remain on the ballot paper. There will be no fait accompli of a no-deal Brexit imposed on the UK. Crucially, the cabinet secretary could give Corbyn no assurance such a risk could otherwise be avoided. Constitutionally, neither a vote of no confidence in Johnson nor a parliamentary vote against no deal will stop it going ahead on 31 October if the government refuses to act in response. In sum, Corbyn’s initiative to create a bridge government to avoid this fate is an imperative that deserves a positive hearing.
To leave the European Union with no process agreed for determining the gamut of our future relationships with the continent of which we are a part would be an act of extreme folly and national self-harm. There is no mandate for this; as Corbyn argued, it was not mentioned in the referendum. Indeed, it was excluded.
The immediate impact of a no-deal Brexit on 1 November is unknowable but likely to involve rupture to key supplies of fresh foods and crucial medicines. The consequences may or may not be manageable. More serious, long-term and unmanageable will be the impact in the years ahead – prolonged recession, a slump in business confidence, collapsed sterling, endangered national security, the almost certain break-up of the kingdom, frozen careers and a gathering exodus of the many companies that have made Britain their home. International collaboration involving Britain on any initiative – from space to security, trade to finance – will become impossibly difficult.
This will happen against a darkening backdrop where already volatile financial markets are warning of a global recession and the threat of a full-blown trade war. It is thus that Corbyn’s offer deserves the most constructive response possible from MPs who have the national interest as their prime concern. It does not require non-Labour MPs to act as if they are endorsing his socialism or to suspend their distrust of him and his policies. Rather, it is to back a short-term bridge government whose sole purpose is to organise a general election, with new political options and a fresh electoral mandate.
The reflex reaction of the Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, to initially dismiss the initiative was wrong. It is good she has partially climbed down as politically adeptly as possible given her earlier misstep. But touting Ken Clarke and Harriet Harman as joint leaders of a parallel initiative should be seen for what it is: cover for her climbdown. No temporary government is possible without the support of Labour MPs and their leader. She is right to signal she is now keeping the lines open and her new recruit, Sarah Wollaston, importantly recognised the nature of the choice. Politics, as she has learned the hard way, is brutal.
But even with Lib Dem support, it will need up to a dozen Conservatives to swing behind the opposition parties to form the bridge government. Tory MP Guto Bebb is right to frame the decision not as one of putting “Corbyn into Downing Street”, as Dominic Grieve has done, but, rather, as a generational choice in the context of a national calamity. Grieve, like Swinson, should climb down and reframe the nature of the decision. Yet it is for all Tory MPs a fateful moment. Do they collude in the process of turning their party into a fully fledged English nationalist party, plunging Britain into crisis in a no-deal Brexit? Or do they speak up for country?
No one knows how an election will pan out, but there is no doubt that it must be the right course. This paper has not stinted in its criticism of Corbyn’s twists and turns, not least over his and his party’s lack of clarity over Brexit, but on this issue he is unequivocally right. Without a majority in the current parliament for a referendum, Britain must have a bridge government to hold an election and put the calamity of a no-deal Brexit to the people, along with the option of a second referendum and Remain. Corbyn’s offer must be kept alive. Democracy and the national interest demand no less.