Yesterday, I watched a video of the British Parliament in which Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, mouthed what seemed to be “a stupid woman” directed at Prime Minister Theresa May. He denied saying those words. In that, he was literally correct. Mouthing is not saying. One Labour Party spokesman insisted that he had said “stupid people,” but even I, who am not finely attuned to subtle readings of body language, clearly saw Corbyn’s lips move that could not be “people” but was almost certainly “woman.” Why lie when the truth is so obvious? This should be a major question for politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.
This posture of personal abuse is a pale facsimile of what Donald Trump does in the U.S., but given a reputation for British civility in politics, the gesture is telling. The comment was made in response to Theresa May stating that the members of the Labour Party “aren’t impressed” with their leader’s Brexit stance. After mocking Corbyn’s total vacillation on whether or not he would table a vote of no confidence in the Conservative government, Theresa May advised Jeremy Corbyn, “I’ve got some advice for the Right Honourable Gentleman, look behind you.”
Compared to the fractious Conservative Party schisms and mutinies, the Labour Party makes the Conservative Party look like a well-run ship instead of a ship of fools. Theresa May counted on Labour Party defections to pass her Brexit legislation, but that hope was dashed; there were not enough votes to overcome the dissidents from within her own party. On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn, contrary to his own party’s official strategy, in an interview said that he did not want Brexit to stop. Evidently, he would rather take power over a suicidal polity than risk failing to become Prime Minister, though his rationale was that he had to cow tow to the will of the British people.
The Labour Party set forth six necessary and jointly sufficient measures to support Theresa May. The PM mounted a campaign to “charm” dissident Labourites, combined with an appeal to British national self-interest given the self-immolation option of no deal. The Tories targeted Labour centrist and liberal politicians critical of Corbyn, such as Chris Bryant, Rachel Reeves and Lucy Powell. Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) responded to the entreaties two months ago with, “I won’t prop up Theresa May’s dog dinner of a Brexit plan.” However, contrary to Corbyn, Reeves called for a second referendum rather than the “shoddy compromise” on offer. May seemed as blind and deaf to critics from across the aisle as to her own party members.
Penned by Keir Starmer, the Labour Party’s six conditions were:
- Does the agreement ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?
- Does the agreement deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?
- Does the agreement ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?
- Does the agreement defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?
- Does the agreement protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?
- Does the agreement deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?
The Labour Party did not want a hard border in Ireland between the North and the South, with which the EU adamantly agreed. That decision was to be backstopped until a deal could be negotiated about what would be an effective hard border down the North Sea, a condition unacceptable to the Labour Party. A backstopped deal on Ireland, as well as a failure to restrain Spain’s ambitions over Gibraltar, were anathema to the Brexiteers, though they offered no reasonable solution out of the impasse. Brexiteers argued that the agreement would then always be subject to an EU veto and, therefore, EU control. The majority in the Labour Party, however, wanted a continuation of open borders re the movement of peoples, in precise opposition to May’s foundation of her compromise to end that movement.
Labour also argued that, without an agreement on free trade in services and goods, the services sector, which constituted 80% of the British economy, would be undercut with no deal in place. Further, without an agreement on the movement of peoples, each member state in the EU would have to negotiate separate agreements with Britain to permit pensioners, who retire in Spain, Italy, Portugal or elsewhere, to continue to have access to health care and pensions, let alone residency rights, family reunification and naturalization of children. However, May was determined to restrict the free movement of people, and hence services, between Britain and the EU.
The Labour party wanted a comprehensive free trade deal, either on the Norwegian model or the recent agreement negotiated between Canada and the EU. Retaining free trade in the manufacturing sector was crucial since the globalist capitalist economy requires huge markets, very specialized production and just-on-time delivery, without which one auto manufacturer alone, such as Honda, according to the Financial Times, would need a 300,000 square metres (the equivalent of a warehouse of over 3 million square feet) just to house parts. (Pharmaceuticals drugs, aviation and car parts were already stockpiling with the possibility of no deal.) Free trade could be solidified by a Norwegian style customs union to preserve frictionless trade and exact the same benefits of a true partnership.
In other words, the Labour Party (or a seeming majority) seemed united on a very different version of an EU-lite agreement than May’s option, but without the concurrence of the EU. As the Brexiteers both in the Tory Party and in Labour complained, an EU-lite deal would make Britain a vassal state of the EU without any input or control. 52% of Britons on 23 June 2016 voted to “take back control of our country and our laws” and make Britain great again by putting the British people first. The number of left-wing populists and opportunists, though not as numerous as those in the Conservative Party, was not insignificant.
The combination of necessary and sufficient conditions required by the Labour Party that would satisfy the Tory base was and remains impossible to achieve. If Elizabeth May offered an ignominious deal, Jeremy Corbyn vacillated between his eagerness to win the next British election and his fear of disaster for Britain. The leaders of the governing and the opposition parties both excelled in the practice of dilatory politics. If May seemed to be an “enfeebled political zombie,” Corbyn seemed to exude pathetic cowardice content to bray but not table a vote of non-confidence.
The Labour Party was divided among:
- the hard-line Brexiteers who agree with hard-line Tory Brexiteers such as Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) that the differences between Britain and the EU are so great that the UK should never have submerged its unique language, customs, culture and history within the EU, even in the form of a customs union;
- the abstainers who are ambivalent on the risk of further delays versus accepting May’s EU-lite;
- the pragmatists opposed to May who believe that the risk of May’s deal and of a Brexit no-deal departure are both unacceptable, the latter leading to an 8% drop in Britain’s GDP according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF);
- the defectors who would support May’s deal (perhaps 15-20 Labour MPs) rather than risk a final post-Brexit no-deal self-immolation option.
But Tuesday, the EU offered Britain a parachute, or a second parachute. The first one came this past Monday when the EU’s highest court ruled that Britain could unilaterally reverse its decision to leave the EU. The second came the very next day when the EU agreed that the implementation of Article 50 to leave could be delayed if Britain planned to hold a second referendum.
Theresa May seems bent on running down the clock so that there will be only two choices, her plan or no plan and disaster. Logically, there is possibly another option, leaving on the basis of a different deal than the one May negotiated. The last would be an alternative virtually impossible to put together in time for a referendum. Other members in the British Parliament see two other options – amendments of Theresa May’s plan that would take into consideration more of the legitimate concerns of members of Parliament from all parties over the contents of the agreement. Recognizing how almost impossible it is to negotiate a deal with over a hundred independent voices and then going to the EU to ask them to vote again on an amended deal with a very short timeline, others are urging a second referendum, not just between May’s deal and leaving with no deal, but with other choices, staying in the EU on the current terms given the new knowledge of what leaving would imply. The realistic choices are:
- Pass May’s deal;
- Vote down May’s deal and vote to stay in the EU on current terms – a breach with the will of British voters;
- Hold a second referendum with two choices: i) May’s deal or ii) exit without a deal;
- Hold a second referendum with three choices: i) May’s deal; ii) exit without a deal; or iii) stay in the EU;
- Let things drift and exit the EU without a deal.
The last option most Britons, even many strong Brexiteers, now recognize as disastrous, but it may be the outcome if politicians cannot get together and create an acceptable solution. The irony is that reports circulate that some of Theresa May’s closest allies in the Conservative Party, for example, her deputy, David Lidington, James Cleverly, the Conservative deputy chairman, and Gavin Barwell, her chief of staff, are exploring the possibility of support for a second referendum. The Brexiteers in Cabinet are furious at the alleged betrayal.
At the same time, others, like Education Secretary Damian Hinds, were insisting that the government was definitely not preparing for a second referendum, that the option had not been discussed in Cabinet, and that the May option is already the product of a quest for balance taking all concerns into account. Hinds was the front face of the party masking the manipulators in the backrooms betraying the Brexit option that they had pledged to pursue sincerely. Clarifications and reassurances from the EU that could satisfy parliamentarians’ concerns were only a smoke screen. Contrary to the charges that Theresa May does not listen, echoed in a question by Sophy Ridge on Sky News, Hinds claimed that May had listened and had struck a balance; that was the real and only rational choice. Sarah Sanders also insists that Donald Trump does not lie.
Meanwhile, a number of Conservative MPs were openly and actively campaigning for a second referendum. One was Jo Johnson who left May’s Cabinet because of differences over Brexit; he called her deal “half-baked.” It was his brother, Boris, who had been so active in pushing for Brexit while Jo was adamantly opposed. The latter insisted that Parliament and the British people should not be faced with two terrible options, May’s horribly flawed deal and no deal at all. Plan B required a second referendum with all possible options on the table.
What about Labour? The party had assured the public that if Theresa May did not bring forth her option to Parliament and failed to get its support, the Labour Party would table a vote of no confidence in the government. In answer to the question why Labour had not tabled a no confidence vote, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Shadow Business Secretary, insisted that tabling the motion depended on timing, that is, a determination that such a vote would be successful and not a display of parliamentary drama and theatrics.
In the meanwhile, she wanted a deal to provide a strong direction in terms of the single market, a clear and complete deal with security issues that would show how Britain would keep up with EU on human rights and environmental standards. It was a direct rejection of Hinds’ claim that the May deal offered a balance among different perspectives.
In spite of Labour divisions over a second referendum, when Long-Bailey was asked whether she supported a second referendum, she fell back on a recitation of Labour policy to put the British economy and the community. The Labour Party wanted a debate and vote in Parliament on the May deal, and, if defeated, a call for a general election. Long-Bailey insisted that the first referendum had to be respected and she disingenuously believed that a deal could be struck in Parliament that could assuage the concerns of many members. But if further compromises were introduced, how would the EU respond? If no deal could be made, Labour did not rule out consulting the people at some point. But an election, a referendum or both?
The Scottish National Party’s (SNP’s) First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, insisted that the Labour Party should introduce a no-confidence vote to clarify its own position on Brexit. The Labour Party policy insists that any decision on a second referendum would only follow if it tried and failed to defeat the government, but the Catch-22 is that if it does not push the government to fall, then no decision need be made on a second referendum. Sturgeon accused Labour of being as much an obstacle to progress on Brexit as the Conservative Party. The SNP insisted that, though it could table such a motion, unlike the Labour Party, the official opposition, there was no guarantee that a vote of no-confidence would follow. The SNP, like Labour, insisted that it did not want to engage in theatrics.
The SNP wanted the second referendum options, not simply to be May’s deal or no deal, but include staying in the EU. Democracy, Sturgeon insisted, permitted people to change their minds, especially when people now know what Brexit means. Even though Britain would face years if not a decade of trade negotiations, which would further strengthen the Scottish independence movement, given realities and the stakes, her preference was to remain as an equal partner with the Irish, Welsh and English within the EU. Whether independent or not, always within the EU.
Such is the way we build political mazes that seem to offer no apparent exit but encourage a multitude of shrill voices.