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Labour – a Brexit political strategy that is both effective and ambiguous

Labour – a Brexit political strategy that is both effective and ambiguous

By Tom Harris

While most observers’ eyes have been focused on the continuing “sex pest” scandal in Westminster, and then on the most recent, dramatic Cabinet resignations, Labour have continued with a Brexit political strategy that is both effective and ambiguous.

It has been effective because they have been seen to win some key strategic political arguments – forcing the government to concede to the publication of its Brexit analysis papers, for example, following a vote in the Commons which the government didn’t even contest (for fear of losing). Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow DexEU Secretary, meanwhile, has been having the better of his opposite number, David Davis, in the TV and radio studios, communicating a practical but critical approach to Britain’s Brexit negotiations.

The point of this strategy is to put the government on the ropes while at the same time avoiding too many difficult questions about what Labour would actually do if an early general election were called and Starmer found himself in Davis’s seat in Brussels. For Labour remains deliberately vague when it comes to some of the key elements of Brexit.

For example, the party has stuck to its manifesto commitment, that in government, it would not countenance leaving the EU without a deal – a position that has been widely criticised for offering the EU27 the upper hand when it comes to negotiations. Yet this message seems to have played reasonably well with voters, according to polls.

But Labour still refuses to be pinned down on the so-called “Brexit bill” which the EU27 see as essential if trade talks are to get underway during the second half of the pre-Brexit period. This will enable Labour to criticise the final agreed figure, whatever it is. This may seem dishonest, but Labour are in opposition, not in government, and on this issue, they are performing effectively.

Similarly, the party still hasn’t clarified its position on either freedom of movement post-Brexit or on the prospect of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, choosing instead to focus on the future of the Good Friday Agreement rather than on practical solutions. Again, why not? It’s up to ministers, not their shadows, to solve such problems.

Where Labour is united and coherent – in contrast to the government’s position so far – is on the status of EU citizens currently living in the UK. Its calls to offer permanent status unilaterally is widely seen as the position that should have been adopted by Theresa May at the very start of the process and which she is likely to adopt further down the line.

Starmer is a Remainer and has not changed his mind; his publicly expressed views, we can assume, are curtailed by the views of his leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has publicly committed the party to respecting the result of the referendum and proceeding with Brexit. So it’s useful at this stage to take into account those outside the Labour front bench – prominent and influential MPs like Chuka Umunna and Stephen Kinnock, who are campaigning strongly to maintain the UK’s membership of the Single Market and Customs Union after Brexit (although both, doubtless, would renege on Corbyn’s commitment were they given the chance to do so). However, both Kinnock and Umunna have stated their reservations about the continuation of freedom of movement and have made little effort to explain how it could be curtailed while remaining in the Single Market.

Essentially, Labour is doing a decent job of opposing the government on an issue that, officially at least, it supports. It is doing what oppositions are supposed to do – holding ministers to account and making their lives uncomfortable, while at the same time successfully avoiding the most difficult questions about its own position.

A final, wider political, point: there has been much speculation about the possibility of an early general election, particularly whenever another minister is forced to resign. For the absence of doubt, an early general election would be illegal and would be struck down by the courts unless two thirds of all sitting MPs vote for it. It would not be enough to abstain: the Fixed Term Parliament Act states that two thirds of all MPs – not just two thirds of those present in the chamber at the time – must support dissolution and a polling day earlier than May 2022. It remains unclear why anyone would predict that Tory MPs, particularly those with slim majorities, would deliberately bring about a contest they believed they would lose.

The only alternative way to bring forward polling day is for the government to lose a vote of confidence on a simple majority. But that would depend on DUP MPs deciding that they would rather have Jeremy Corbyn, with his historic association with the IRA and Sinn Fein, as prime minister than Theresa May or whoever will succeed her. A courageous prediction, one might say.