In her heart, Theresa May must realise that her desperate attempts to hold a Conservative majority together and avoid a crash out No Deal in fifty days’ time are on the point of collapse. She told Donald Tusk yesterday that her party would never unite behind Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit letter and that 30 of her MPs would never back her deal unless changes were made to the Irish backstop. To hear them all talk you’d think they had all the time in the world, instead of which the world is crashing around them.
It’s pretty clear that facing this agenda, an extension of Article 50 is essential.
Can cross party agreement emerge out of chronic internal party splits; Labour between Remainers who think they spot the chance of a second referendum, and the Corbyn front bench who now support Leave via a soft Brexit; and Conservatives split between a range of Leavers and the larger number of party loyalists?
The uneasy balance is shifting towards a soft Brexit, although it could still tip over into crash. It could happen if the acutely embarrassing question is forced: is it then worth leaving at all? One answer is purely political and leaves the conviction politicians on both sides seething: yes, it’s the only way to avoid No Deal. The other answer is a majority begins to form around Consult the People, the cause of a second referendum favoured under a variety of conditions by most opposition MPs, but few Tories. However it remains a credible backstop, to coin a phrase, if the Commons persist in failing to decide on a Brexit option, rather than allow a collapse to No Deal. A second referendum might be a abject admission of failure by the political system, but nowhere near as bad as reaching the nadir of No Deal.
A crucial issue – unclear to me – is what happens to the backstop under the Corbyn plan or anything like it. If the focus is on the negotiation under the terms of the political declaration, it remains. It is after all very similar to the terms of the withdrawal agreement that May is trying to renegotiate.
She now faces an existential decision, over whether to do the real U turn in favour of a Labour proposition like Norway plus which requires her to smudge or even rub out red lines over free trade and free movement. Fudging remains essential. Do an Oliver Letwin and swallow the backstop, more or less as is, and concentrate mostly on the terms of political declaration to negotiate the final settlement. But that shifts the balance of risk further against the UK, already weakened by the withdrawal agreement.
And to make the parochial point, it must also mean “”betraying” the DUP and creating a trading regime for Northern Ireland pretty much the same as the backstop provides – the crucial difference being that it is achieved with UK consent and would doubtless be accompanied by “de-dramatisiing ” the operation of east – west regulation and all sorts of dressing up with roles for the GFA institutions.
Can she take most of her MPs with her – or at least enough to form a cross party majority? Under these scenarios, what happens afterwards to the DUP and the government’s majority? If the withdrawal agreement passes on such terms, how long can her government survive? On Brexit, let’s go with Labour. On that basis and with a deal struck, you can see an election coming. So thanks for everything DUP, and good night.
But there is a critical difference. Labour is no longer rejecting the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. Instead Corbyn is now offering his own deal: accept our changes to the Political Declaration, bind yourself to them in UK law and we will support your Withdrawal Agreement.
But as the Prime Minister bangs her head into a brick wall in Brussels, she may be tempted to look in another direction.
The Corbyn letter gives the appearance at least of offering a plausible way forward. It does not involve reopening the Withdrawal Agreement but focuses instead on the Political Declaration – something the EU has said it was willing to look at again.
Accepting Corbyn’s demands requires a shift in the Prime Minister’s red lines – most notably on a commitment to a permanent customs union. Some of the other conditions require less of a compromise. The Prime Minister has already proposed “close alignment” with the Single Market on goods (though not on services) in her rejected Chequers deal, and she seems to be contemplating whether to concede “dynamic alignment” on Labour standards to secure the support of Labour Leave rebels.
The Norway Plus/Common Market 2.0 advocates in Parliament seem ready to embrace the Labour leader’s move, but that doesn’t mean the EU will rush to embrace the Corbyn plan. A permanent customs union has always been on offer, as might be a “say” (i.e. consultation not decision making) on future trade policy.
Corbyn seems to want full participation in the Single Market – but without clarifying the commitment to free movement. This would require some governance of UK participation in the Single Market and the Government has already made proposals for a Joint Committee and Governing Body and dispute resolutions. The EU will not create “shared institutions” with a non-member state to make decisions.
What is not clear is whether Corbyn wants these all embraced in the Political Declaration. His letter only talks of “enshrining” these negotiating objectives in law before the UK leaves the EU. If he means UK law, then what the EU thinks may matter less than if they need to be attached to a legally binding EU agreement.
Corbyn has already outraged many of the most committed People’s Vote advocates in the Parliamentary Labour Party and this letter may cause trouble with his membership.
But the main impact of the Corbyn letter may be on the mindset of the people who sit behind the Prime Minister. If they are persuaded that without their support she will opt for a Corbyn-style Brexit, many Conservatives could decide their less bad option is to back her deal.
Philip Collins in the Times has a fascinating explanation of what lies behind the internal party splits that make a Brexit resolution so difficult. It seems so unlikely and indeed utterly perverse that division within Labour centres as much on anti- semitism as Brexit. It has again flared up in an incandescent row that could split the party more than Brexit.
After the Second World War, British politics was for many decades stable and predictable. The latter virtue, if that is what it is, is another way of saying that Britain was a society stratified by class. Income and status have had great predictive value in analysing British politics, just as religion once did. For most of the general elections since 1945, if an observer understood the class status of a voter then it was a relatively simple matter to predict their political allegiance. There were always exceptions to this, which is why party fortunes fluctuated. But British politics had a bedrock, and the main parties had a core, provided by the gathering of the class tribes.
In the election of 2017, at the end of a long decline of class politics and the enhancing drug of the European referendum, this no longer worked. It is no longer useful information, for the calculation of voting behaviour, to understand class. The axis has turned. Party affiliation now matters less than cultural outlook and a better way to understand politics is to ask a person’s view on multiculturalism, immigration, globalisation, feminism and gay marriage.
The question in the Labour Party is not whether there will be a split, which is all but inevitable, but what its occasion might be. It is astonishing that MPs have not already left a party which has become, in Mr Umunna’s words, “institutionally racist”. At the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party this week, Jennie Formby, the general secretary, refused, as the MP Luciana Berger reported, “to answer reasonable questions . . . or commit to taking the action we need”.
Such unpleasantness offers sufficient reason for a rupture but the failure of Mr Corbyn to argue for the European cause is more potent. The Labour leader’s letter to the prime minister, in which he offers her a route to leaving the EU via a customs union, has infuriated Labour MPs. That is because, in their bones, they know the divide in politics has changed. A report from the TSSA union this week showed that Labour could lose 45 seats in an election on the European issue. Labour MPs know that they must fall on one side or the other, liberal cosmopolitan or not.
And they know which side they are on. It is not Mr Corbyn’s. They know deep down that they are trapped in a party led by a man with unconscionable views on foreign policy who is perfectly happy to leave the EU. This is why a split in the Labour Party is so likely. It could, of course, end up as a fragmentation….
The existing parties at Westminster were created in an era of class politics. The electorate has graduated into an era of identity politics but the parties have not come with them. They will do, one day. I just think it will happen, soon.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London