Corbyn’s Brexit Predicament

by Benjamin Studebaker

It’s been a little while since we’ve talked about the situation in Britain. For Jeremy Corbyn, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s increasingly clear Theresa May does not have a Brexit deal that can pass the commons and is unlikely to get one. On the other hand, May is determined to delay a vote on this deal until there is no time for there to be a general election followed by further negotiations. These two conditions–combined with the fact that most Labour MPs, party members, and voters want a second referendum–put Corbyn in a very sticky situation. Let’s run through the logic of his position.

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Corbyn wants two things:

  1. He wants to force a general election and become Prime Minister.
  2. He wants Brexit to happen, because he believes he can more effectively push Britain to the left outside the EU than inside.

The trouble is that most of the parliamentary party, the party members, and likely Labour voters do not agree with Corbyn on the EU. They think leaving the EU would be economically disastrous no matter how it’s executed and that if a Labour government oversees Brexit the economic credibility of the party will be damaged and the Conservative Party would quickly return to power. Once reinstated, the Conservatives would use the policy flexibility created by Brexit to push the country rapidly to the right.

As it happens, I think the party is right about this and Corbyn is wrong. Nevertheless, because Corbyn wants both to become Prime Minister and execute Brexit and most of the opposition forces in the UK want a second referendum, Corbyn is pulling against his own movement here. 86% of Labour Party members want a People’s Vote. There are certainly comparable numbers of Lib-Dem and SNP supporters in that camp. Lib-Dem and SNP MPs must vote with Corbyn to force a general election. They won’t do this if they don’t trust that a Labour government will deliver a second referendum.

In a bid to appease the Labour membership, Corbyn has pledged that if he is unable to get a general election, he will support a second referendum. This means that the Lib-Dems and SNP know that if they can persuade Corbyn to call a no-confidence vote and push for a general election and then deny him the votes he needs to force that election, Corbyn will be forced to switch gears and support a People’s Vote. Consequently, they–and the remainers within the Labour Party–are pressing Corbyn hard to call that no confidence vote immediately. Corbyn suspects that he won’t have the votes to force a general election until the deal is put to a vote. He doesn’t want to have to move on to People’s Vote–if he does, he will both miss his chance to be Prime Minister and miss his chance to produce his preferred Brexit. So Corbyn is trying to resist the pressure from his own party and from other opposition parties to hold the no confidence vote before the deal vote.

In the meantime, Theresa May sees an opportunity to politically damage Corbyn and Labour. By pushing the deal vote back, she can force Corbyn to delay his no confidence vote, angering remainers who want to get the no confidence vote over with so they can force Corbyn to come out for People’s Vote. She also ensures that even if a general election is called, there will be no time to renegotiate the deal with the EU unless the EU decides to extend the negotiating window. The EU is unlikely to do this except perhaps in the case of a second referendum in which one of the options is remain. So by delaying the deal vote, May ensures that even if Corbyn becomes Prime Minister he will have no time to negotiate a new deal and will be forced to acquiesce to a People’s Vote.

Corbyn is being put in a no-win situation. He can call a no-confidence vote now, lose it, and be forced to come out for People’s Vote. Or he can wait until the deal vote and call a no-confidence vote after that, knowing that if he becomes Prime Minister the EU will be able to corner him and extract concessions.

Corbyn is screwed, and so he tried to shame May into holding the vote earlier on with a symbolic and meaningless vote of no-confidence in the Prime Minister, rather than in the government itself. A vote of this kind cannot force a general election. Corbyn threatened to hold a no-confidence vote in the government if May did not permit him to hold a no-confidence vote in her personally. May simply called his bluff, because she would prefer he hold the no-confidence vote now, when he is unlikely to win it anyway. This leaves Corbyn with nothing to do but wait for May’s deal vote. All the while his own supporters will grow steadily more frustrated with his unwillingness to support a People’s Vote.

This sets up a situation in which May can potentially survive losing the vote on the deal by calling a second referendum herself. If Corbyn is unwilling to lead the opposition where it wants to go and May is unable to get votes from the Tory right-wing in any case, there’s little to restrain her from co-opting her own opposition. Don’t put it past her–a desperate Prime Minister will explore many options that in other circumstances would be off the table. If she did this, Corbyn would look silly. He could lose the opportunity to become Prime Minister. It may not come again–frustrated with his inaction, the 86% of Labour members who want a People’s Vote could stage a leadership challenge. With Corbyn out of alignment with the members on the most pressing issue of the day, he really could lose this time. Someone like David Lammy–who supported Corbyn’s leadership bid, but has consistently been for a second referedum–could bump him off.

Both Corbyn and May are leading parties whose members don’t necessarily align with the declared policies of their leaders. May isn’t the only leader who could pay the ultimate political price. Corbyn may find that it’s not possible to become Prime Minister and follow through with Brexit–and that in trying to have both he may get neither. If he loses the leadership, he would squander all the progress that left has made in Britain since 2015. A new Labour leader would deliver a People’s Vote, but would likely be more centrist on domestic economic policy. Corbyn must decide whether it’s worth risking everything to stick with Brexit, because everything is on the table.