The amorphous power of Brexit crunch is upon us. It has already taken over British politics and gets underway in practice with the complex process of transferring European Union law into UK law under the ‘Great’ Repeal Act.
Government is riven by ministerial rivalries, the Prime Minister is braced for a fall, cross-party campaigns are being formed. Nobody knows exactly what form Brexit will take, with some senior politicians expressing genuine doubts over whether a deal will emerge at all, taking Britain back to square one and reversing the resultof last year’s referendum. All that is certain is that things will never be the same again”.
Theresa May’s grip on power could not be more fragile after the debacle of the unnecessary election. But Jeremy Corbyn, too, has problems. First, with a hardline group of Remainers, or ‘soft Brexit’ supporters as the new vocabulary would have it, on the Labour back benches and among voters. Secondly, in setting out a clear position. Many of the droves of young people attracted by Corbyn would be horrified by Brexit if it means abandoning Europe altogether.
For the moment, Corbyn appears to be following the advice of those advocating that he simply sits pretty on the sidelines. This is ducking the issue, just as Labour did at the election. Corbyn believes the Tories could fall from power any time and wants an election battle on clear Labour territory. We believe he is wrong. His policy on Brexit will come under closer scrutiny, which won’t survive another fudge. He needs a clearing of the air sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile, the Government’s position in Brussels weakens all the time, as does May’s in No 10. The two sides among the Tories are irreconcilable. There was, all complain, no Cabinet, or any other kind of consultation. A lesson here for Corbyn. One Cabinet minister has been quoted as saying: “There is no plan, no strategy, no direction.” Corbyn will do well not o find himself in a similar position.
The first aim of her supporters is to get May through to the Commons summer recess. Spats, plots and the fetid atmosphere of conspiricies will make for a dangerous summer followed by an even more perilous conference.
Tempting though it might be for Corbyn to sit back and watch the Tories writhe, this is no time to be a spectator. Consult, listen and lead must now be his personal manifesto.
No going back
True to form it didn’t take Labour long after the election to revert to infighting. In an act of provocation, Chuka Umunna, former shadow business secretary, used an amendment to the Queen’s Speech to make one thing absolutely clear: a substantial number of Labour MPs have no truck with leaving the European single market. Almost one-fifth, 49, backed it. Then Umunna became joint head, with a Tory MP, of an anti-Brexit campaign.
Around about the same time, some hotheads in Momentum – which, incidentally, did much to improve Labour’s election turnout – were drawing up a list of MPs they believed did not fit into the new model army and should be deselected. A Corbyn supporter in Liverpool brought long-standing tensions between sitting MP Luciano Berger and her Liverpool Wavertree party to the fore with an warning that she needed to “get on board, quickly” and apologise for backing someone else for the leadership.
Bereft of Corbyn as the default target, the right-wing media opened up on the ‘extremists’ within. In fact, Corbyn was busy bringing back a clutch of ‘moderates’ to the front bench in a reshuffle almost universally ignored by the mainstream media, whose corporate owners will never see grassroots democracy as anything but a threat.
Democracy is woven into the consciousness of Labour. Tragically it has also been an arena for the battle between the progressive left and the sub-Tory right, with the latter holding on to the spoils. The rules still make it near-impossible for a left-winger to stand in a leadership ballot.
The right does not have a god-given right to rule; many MPs need, as one newly-elected MP put it, to “get with the times”. Some may not, and deserve to be held to account by their local party.
But nobody should be part of a hit list. That amounts to a purge and history shows they never end well. But refuseniks who predicted electoral oblivion for Labour were attacking not just Corbyn but the party. They need to consider their position. A relentless, guerrilla campaign would be damaging self-indulgence. There’s no going back.