As the clock runs down on Brexit, Richard Carr charts the 2018 talking points
As Tony Blair has pointed out, 2018 will be the year that makes or breaks Brexit. At present, on the biggest question to face the United Kingdom in decades, Labour is not only on the fence but too often sounds like an ill-qualified candidate waffling through a job interview. In part, this is because of some of the irreconcilable trade-offs the Brexit process involves, but it is also a product of the two divergent forces within the parliamentary Labour party. On the one hand, Labour’s leadership comes from a 1980s leftwing Eurosceptic background which rejects globalisation per se and the capitalism inherent in the single market. On the other, the more moderate backbench element approve to varying degrees not only of the trade elements of European Union membership, but the wider influence it gives Britain in the world. This is Blair’s vision of ‘open’ v ‘closed’ politics writ large. A call needs to be made on this at some point in 2018.
What happens next is therefore fundamentally up for grabs, particularly given the parliamentary maths. Andrew Adonis’ desire to ‘bring the common sense of the British people to bear when they realise what the consequences of Brexit are’ may have an end in mind, but measuring any such shift in opinion remains tricky. The economy is underperforming, but positive numbers in areas like manufacturing should arm even this incompetent government with enough news to keep its sympathetic press sweet. Likewise, the National Health Service has had a tough winter, keeping ‘£350m a week’ on the agenda, but the sterling work of its staff keeps it ticking on. As such, a eureka moment seems unlikely without some carefully laid foundations.
Labour needs to create the conditions whereby both the public, and parliament, feel confident to face down a snapshot of ‘the will of the people’ that is two years old. There are a series of windows outside the political calendar here: major banks commenting on single market membership during their results season in late February, the end of the tax year in early April, and a football World Cup hosted by our tricky acquaintance Vladimir Putin in June (a reminder that intolerance comes in worse forms than ‘bendy bananas’). Yet, it is parliament that will largely settle the question.
As such, 2018 is more or less split in two: finalising exit, and agreeing the terms of the divorce. As it stands, the committee stage of the withdrawal bill will likely take place in the House of Lords in late February, to be followed by the report stage at the end of April. Any major amendments will probably come in the latter, and will be followed, one presumes, by hysterical headlines about the ‘peers who hate Britain’ in the pro-Brexit press. The third reading in May might then see some back and forth between the two chambers.
There is indeed an argument about unelected peers thwarting the will of the elected lower chamber. But here the anti-Brexiters have two trump cards. The first is that the Lords debates will fall close to the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement: a major achievement of Blair and, to be fair, John Major too. Despite the adroit language used in December, the Irish border issue remains unresolved. The idea that the Conservatives might be throwing the peaceable union into disarray is so antithetical that at least some pressure can be applied here, in the upper house and elsewhere.
Second, there will be a direct democratic exercise soon after peers sink their teeth into the bill, in the form of May’s local elections – where Labour is likely to do well. If local leaders can link any squeezes in services to the economic problems posed by Brexit, then even Theresa May’s tin-ear may have to listen. Local Labour parties can play a massive role here, whatever the views of the leadership. What schools, hospitals and social care provisions are at risk if the economy fails to grow in the next five years? What taxes would have to be raised to pay for shortfalls in the national picture? What are the consequences of a hard Brexit? The local elections should not be ignored as a platform to answer these questions.
Here, perhaps, the parliamentary centre-left needs to be a little Machiavellian for a while. Jeremy Corbyn will undoubtedly help in share of the vote terms at the locals. His fudge on Brexit in 2017 worked, and it will probably work again this year. While Labour should be nudged closer to a Norway-style deal rather than a ‘Canada plus’, the reality may be that this discussion is for after the locals.
That said, at some stage over the early summer moderates need to find ways of making Corbyn’s views on the subject be known. The fudge Labour achieved at the general election worked well, but it short changes young voters, most of whom are strongly pro-EU. Corbyn may not like every aspect of the single market or customs union, but the reality is his fudging only serves to hand over Britain’s economic future to the whims of Arlene Foster, Liam Fox and Donald Trump.
The period immediately following the locals should see Labour ‘Remainers’ further unlock both the sensibility and ambition of young, moderate Conservatives. Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Anna Soubry were useful, but they are now either pigeon holed as the awkward squad, uncharitably viewed as ‘past it’, or priced in as ‘Remoaners’. This May’s local elections are the chance to widen the net of sympathetic single market Tories who are worried about their seats. Sensible Conservatives did not enter politics to see Britain economically marooned, undermine our tax base, or to endanger the very future of the UK. This could be the price of inaction by the 2020s.
In June the G7 gather in Quebec. This matters because Trump is a major ace in the deck of those seeking a softer Brexit. In a sense, this has already delivered: the prospect of a swift UK-United States trade deal on anything substantial now seems fairly remote. But rebel members of parliament have one further advantage: the occupant of the White House just says anything that comes into his head. Whether it is journalists quoting his advisors, congressional Democrats pushing their Republican counterparts into admitting how the US hopes to leverage the situation, or the president himself just spouting off, there is a big opportunity here. Trump’s Art of the Deal is to screw the other guy and that is us. an egomaniac in power is hard to work into the grid but, if Fire and Fury is anything to go by, pro-Europeans should start doing just that. The left overplayed its hand on Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, even arguably George W Bush in the 2000s, but Trump is in a different league. Get this guy to talk. If there is no positive deal with the EU, he is our future.
After the summer you would then expect the usual bluster from the prime minister at conference, and a Labour leadership unable to quite locate Norway on a map overusing the word ‘bespoke’. The government will still propose x, and Labour x-1. The government will brief on breakthroughs, mainly to give the press something to do, but the can will still be kicked down the road.
More substantively, under the Dominic Grieve amendment to the withdrawal bill, the House of Commons will be due its say on the terms of the divorce in October or November this year. Around this time, perhaps at conference, the government will likely hail a tariff-free deal on goods with the EU as some kind of triumph, whilst shunting tougher questions on services into the transition. All things being equal, there might be some vaguely stronger language on ‘a’ or ‘the’ customs union, without the offer of a firm commitment on anything of the sort.
The more intriguing prospect is that any withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU will need European parliamentary approval too, thus raising the prospect of back and forth between the European parliament and UK parliament late this year. Before they do so, and ideally as soon as possible, the European parliament could pass a resolution confirming the UK’s ability to reverse article 50, as well as the terms that could be on offer. This would necessarily be vague, probably endorsing the terms David Cameron achieved, with a guarantee of further exploratory talks on the issue of freedom of movement, and perhaps a juicy figure on the level of state aid that is doable within the EU to intrigue the Corbynistas. Given the thin gruel the government will likely be serving up this year, or, if David Davis and co can bounce their colleagues into a hard Brexit, something more immediately disadvantageous, the ability to show there is an alternative is not to be sniffed at.
None of this easy, and there are no guarantees of success. But there are existential questions at play here, and Labour’s centre-left should ‘go long’. It is time to stand up for Britain’s future, in parliament and elsewhere.
Richard Carr is senior lecturer in the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin university. He tweets @Richard_Carr.
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