Writing in The Independent today, Tony Blair argues that Brexit can be stopped. Of course, the former prime minister is only able to say something so provocative because he has nothing to lose. We saw how little traction there was for a party taking such an unnuanced position in the Liberal Democrats’ measly election performance.
Jeremy Corbyn, Tom Watson and a majority of Labour MPs recognised the danger of denying the will of the people in the wake of the EU referendum. They therefore made Labour’s position deliberately ambiguous, which may (we will never really know) have helped the Party to see off any Lib Dem resurgence among ‘Remainers.’
But this situation is not sustainable, particularly as Theresa May’s weakness means that Labour is now being actively consulted by the EU about the negotiations. It is one thing to be vague about the detail of your position when the public think you have no chance of forming a government. It is quite another to continue to obfuscate when you are nearing 50% in the opinion polls (as Labour is now), and the most important negotiations about the country’s future since the Second World War are underway.
In fairness to Blair, his article is much more subtle and emollient than the title suggests. Nevertheless, Labour’s most hated winner voices a significant strand of opinion, which is perhaps louder and more pronounced in the corridors of power and certain sections of the media, than it is in any part of the country – where life goes on, entirely free from the trappings of political chicanery.
If Blair’s stand represents one rallying point, then another is the insanity of the present prime minister’s position – that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” It is probably true (though it cannot be proven) that the majority of the British people favour a “soft Brexit” at this point. This would mean we departed the EU mothership with an agreement to remain inside the Customs Union and the Single Market. No deal, on the other hand, would mean the UK leaping out of the EU without a parachute.
So, is there a third way?
You could argue (wrongly) that the Labour Party is already pursuing one. An impression seems to have formed in the public mind that Labour is half-heartedly supporting Brexit, but that if we were in charge, at the very worst we would be actively negotiating for a “soft Brexit.” And at the best, it is commonly held, we would be ingeniously manoeuvring to stop Brexit happening at all.
Except that there is no evidence for this. Labour’s much-vaunted manifesto contained no real detail about what we would do on Brexit. Meanwhile, shadow chancellor John McDonnell explicitly said recently that Labour would not make membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union red lines for a Labour-led negotiation.
In which case, in what way are we any different to the hard Brexiteers? This is incredibly dangerous for Labour, as the overwhelming majority of the millions of younger people who came out to vote for the Party were also pro-‘Remain’. We cannot really know whether they believed Labour’s position was something else when they voted for the Party in their droves last month, but something doesn’t add up if that was not the case.
This solipsism is dangerous for the country, too. The alternative case must be firmly put. This is why Chuka Ummuna’s Brexit amendment, badly-timed and misdirected though it was, carried some resonance. There is a huge hole where Britain’s political leadership should be located. To fill it, Labour cannot simply sit back and allow the negotiations to go badly wrong for Britain.
This does not require any kind of mea culpa. Although some on the left are claiming that Jeremy Corbyn is actually prime minister, it is worth remembering that he is not. The Tories are very unlikely to call another election in the near future, as they desperately fear losing. So, the chances of Labour actually having to negotiate the terms of Brexit are very low indeed. One of the few luxuries of being in opposition is that you get to speak truth to power – and that is exactly what we must now do.
So, we should be bold and explicit. Simply answering in the negative is no longer good enough. The British people, remainers and leavers alike, rightly expect our political leaders to steer the country through the choppy waters ahead. Hiding meekly behind our lame duck prime minister as she steers the ship onto the rocks would not only leave us politically stranded in the long-term. It would be a grave betrayal of our national duty, too.