Jeremy Corbyn’s Incoherent Brexit Politics

Michael Brendan Dougherty

Well, now it is official. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the United Kingdom’s Labour party, has finally outlined his party’s new position on Brexit in an editorial in the Guardian. Spoiler alert: It is completely daft.

Just a refresher. Three years ago, citizens of the U.K. voted in simple referendum. The choices were “Remain a member of the European Union” and “Leave the European Union.” Leave won by a small percentage. The Leave and Remain causes are more passionately felt than party attachments for many Brits.

Two years ago, Jeremy Corbyn was able to have it both ways on Brexit. He said his party was committed to implementing the referendum’s result. But in fact, Labour benefited from a surge of Remain voters wishing to stick it to Theresa May, who had started to negotiate Brexit and who denounced Remainers as “citizens of nowhere.” That convergence nearly brought May down. At the time I predicted that the tectonic plates of Brexit underneath British politics would begin to grind Corbyn the way they had May. Now it is happening.

At this point, Brexit occupies the minds of two smaller parties. The Liberal Democrats (upwardly mobile, socially liberal, fiscally conservative) have staked out a position of simply revoking Article 50, ending Brexit, and remaining in the European Union as if nothing had happened in 2016 or the years since. The Brexit party, led by UKIP’s former head, Nigel Farage, has another simple and straightforward position: Just leave, now, without a deal.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has treated the Brexit party as an existential threat to his Tories. When 21 members of his own party voted against his ability to threaten a no-deal Brexit in negotiations with Brussels, he expelled them from the party. Farage called it an act of leadership.

Corbyn feels less free to swat away the Lib Dems. He still insists on trying to chart a middle path that satisfies both Labour’s Brexiteers and its Remainers, and he’s making himself and the party look ridiculous in the process. Corbyn’s policy is that, if elected, he would begin renegotiating a softened Brexit withdrawal agreement with the EU, perhaps considering a customs union, that he claims would be much better than the current one, or anything Johnson can put together. Once he got 27 nations of the EU to agree to this, he would turn around and hold another divisive national referendum, giving the people a final say on it. The two options would be the Corbyn “Remain Lite” deal or simply remaining in the European Union. Corbyn wouldn’t campaign either way, and likely wouldn’t oblige his party to campaign for the deal that he’d negotiated on their behalf.

This is a stinking absurdity too crazy even for the Europeanists. Foreign leaders and allies don’t want to waste time negotiating a deal with a government when that government isn’t interested in wholeheartedly supporting or implementing it.

It is also an abdication of the government’s responsibility, and another facet of the United Kingdom’s constitutional crisis. Remainers have resorted to extra-constitutional means to resist Brexit. Normally the executive — the prime minister and his cabinet — conducts matters of foreign policy. Why? Because the nation must speak with one voice. But Remainers in the House of Lords demanded a “meaningful vote” on any negotiated Brexit deal, something like the way the United States Senate ratifies treaties. So Parliament was able to strike May’s deal down. Later, Remainers in the House of Commons wanted to undermine Johnson’s strategy for negotiating with Brussels, and legislated against it. Again, a matter of foreign policy that quite literally can’t be handled by a deliberative body — a negotiation with a supranational body — was taken away from the executive.

Now Corbyn wants to make this mistake a third time. In an effort to avoid the responsibility of making hard political choices that might offend either the Leave or the Remain factions of his party, he is saying, “I’m for both and neither all at once.”

Personally, I think this is not just an incoherent position that deepens the United Kingdom’s malaise, but also a political loser. The passions around Brexit are intensifying. Leave and Remain are political identities that are more cohesive and sometimes more strongly felt than Tory and Labour. Johnson has aligned his party with Leave. The Liberal Democrats have aligned themselves with Remain. Corbyn is pointing Labour toward the political no-man’s land in between. I can’t imagine he’ll find the terrain there particularly hospitable.

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