The Guardian view on Labour and Brexit: lead the debate | Editorial

The Tory leadership contest is closing down space for compromise. The opposition must make the case for Britain’s European alliance

In their race to become prime minister, the two Conservative leadership candidates are licensing wishful thinking on an industrial scale. Boris Johnson tells Tory members what they want to hear: that a great, new Brexit deal is available and that leaving the EU without any deal is also a viable alternative. His rival, Jeremy Hunt, gets closer to honesty, warning that a no-deal exit would be costly, but he retains it as an option.

Mr Hunt and Mr Johnson cannot rule out the most damaging rupture with the EU because many Tories see it as a desirable outcome and the only valid expression of the 2016 referendum result. While their contest dominates the news, the terms of national debate are being skewed. Fanatical Europhobia is exerting a gravitational pull on the whole question of what Brexit means. A campaign to restore balance and sanity to the argument is urgently needed.

Labour rejected a no-deal exit long ago and helped orchestrate parliamentary manoeuvres to stop it happening in March. Jeremy Corbyn has often challenged Mrs May to repudiate anti-Brussels extremists within her party. No one can doubt the opposition’s aversion to what Mr Corbyn calls “a damaging Tory Brexit”. But the resistance has limited potency because other aspects of Labour’s European message lack consistency.

This saga has been running since the party’s annual conference last year, where policy was codified in a convoluted formula to satisfy those who wanted a second referendum and those who insisted the result of the first one be honoured. That debate flowed from two rival accounts of Labour’s democratic duties: one to its members, the majority of whom want to remain in the EU, and the other to people who voted leave in constituencies represented by Labour MPs.

Only some of the pro-Brexit voters in those seats are Labour supporters, but opponents of a referendum argue that the objective should be winning wider support in working-class communities where faith in the party has been in decline since before 2016, and where support for Brexit expresses a cry of economic and social anguish. It is a demand to be heard, say Labour’s pro-leave MPs, and it must be satisfied as a condition for regaining trust.

One counter-argument is that Brexit offers no real respite to those people. On the contrary, whatever its form it will inflict more economic pain. Another is that Labour’s bigger ballot box emergency is the flood of remain voters to the Greens and Liberal Democrats.

Both sides in this debate can be right. It is an ugly dilemma but that is the nature of Brexit. The simple word “leave” concealed a bundle of painful decisions – on immigration, trade, regulation. Mrs May was destroyed by the impossible choices she faced. It is not surprising Mr Corbyn prefers not to be pinned down. But the cost of ambiguity is diminished relevance. The aspiration to rise above the leave-remain divide is laudable in theory, but in practice it looks like tactical lurking on the margin of the most urgent debate the country has faced for generations. Labour has shifted towards a second referendum in increments while the Tories have taken wild leaps towards ever more extreme notions of Brexit. Labour’s voice has been muffled while Tories compete to see which of them can bellow the worst idea the loudest.

Meanwhile, the spectrum of possible outcomes has narrowed. Mr Johnson, Britain’s likely next prime minister, would be propped up by people who relish the chaos of a no-deal exit. The space for a softer, compromise Brexit is vanishing. The definitions have shifted. A “hard Brexit” once meant anything outside the single market. Now Tory hardliners, eyeing up deals with Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, define anyone who would preserve regulatory alignment with the EU as a “remainer”. When the default definition of Brexit is a model admired by Mr Farage, it should be clear that Labour is opposed. The trajectory is towards a crunch moment that demands an unambiguous, principled defence of Britain’s strategic, cultural, economic and historical alliance with its European neighbours. Labour is following behind that trend when it could be leading.

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Editorial

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