The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

04 Apr 2019

Politics and Society

Theresa and Jeremy
Sitting in a tree
First comes love
Then comes marriage
Then comes baby
In a baby carriage!

It doesn’t quite work, does it? If the old playground song rather overplays the degree of genuine affection between the UK’s Conservative Prime Minister and its Labour Leader of the Opposition, it looks even less likely to provide an accurate prediction of the outcome of the talks they’re currently holding to try to resolve the Parliament’s Brexit impasse.

For one thing, although it’s fun to speculate about which politician would take on which portfolio were it ever to happen, the chances of May and Corbyn forming some kind of ‘Government of National Unity’ – one that would see the UK safely out of the EU and then negotiate the future relationship between the two – are close to zero.

For another, the chances that, even if the talks never lead to that kind of marriage, they might still prove fruitful – in the sense of producing a cross-party consensus capable of surviving more than a few months – don’t seem much higher.

That’s partly down to the fact that Corbyn must know that any promises he might be able to extract from May – a customs union, enhanced access to the single market, and ‘dynamic alignment’ on the environment and workers’ rights – would almost certainly have to be included, not in the legally enforceable Withdrawal Agreement, but in the wish-list known as the Political Declaration.

As a result, there would be nothing to stop May’s successor as Tory Prime Minister reneging on any commitments she might make, apart, that is, from a sense of shame and honour – not qualities that one immediately associates with the man most desperate (if not necessarily most likely) to take over from her, one Boris Johnson.

In any case, there is pretty scant evidence, so far at least, that the Prime Minister is entering these talks with any more of an open mind than the one she brought to earlier discussions with representatives of other parties a few weeks ago.

Saying she’s willing to talk but then proving herself utterly unwilling to listen is one of Theresa May’s big things. It’s what she does. It’s how she’s made. Why does anybody expect her to change now?

Rather than realising that she will have to go for a supposedly softer Brexit and wanting to ‘dip Corbyn’s hands in the blood’, as some have suggested, it seems just as likely that May is assuming the talks will fail, thereby allowing her to return to the Commons (apparently more in sorrow than in anger) in order to try to get her original deal through – this time as one of the options in yet another bunch of ‘indicative votes’.

At least some of her eurosceptic ultras may finally be beginning to realise that they’ve overplayed their hand and that the choice is now between that deal and the distinct possibility of no Brexit at all. And there are still a fair few Labour MPs more terrified of losing their seats and their salaries than concerned about the downsides of Brexit for the country and their constituents.

Meanwhile Corbyn, for all that some suggest that he’s not the sharpest knife in the political drawer, must know that the consequences of his being seen to facilitate Brexit, soft or otherwise, could be catastrophic.

True, leaving the EU may well be what (in Seamus Milne’s heart of hearts) he really wants to do – finally quitting the capitalist club, boosting wages by cutting competition for jobs, not having to worry about outside interference with plans to extend public ownership, etc., etc. And true, helping May to forge some sort of cross-party consensus would helpfully challenge his image as a partisan and polarising ideologue.

But all that would have to be weighed against evidence that the country (and particularly Labour voters) has drifted, albeit only slightly, towards Remain. And against evidence that the party members, in whose views he supposedly sets such store, are overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the EU and using another referendum to achieve that outcome. If your whole shtick has always been about not selling out your party, then selling out your party seems like a pretty risky thing to do.

That would be especially the case in the event that the EU will only grant the kind of long extension that obliges the UK to participate in European Parliament elections.

That’s because those elections would then offer the opportunity not just for furious Tories to punish May by voting en masse for UKIP and/or the Brexit Party, but for possibly even more furious Labour supporters to desert to the Lib Dems or (much, much, more dangerously) Change UK.

The only way that Corbyn might be able to avoid that kind of disaster would be to get May to agree to put any deal that they might forge together to a People’s Vote. But, whatever Labour’s last Party Conference agreed on back in the autumn, he and his inner circle currently seem no keener on that idea than May and hers.

That might change. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that parties have used a referendum to solve an otherwise intractable dilemma. But don’t bet on it.

In fact, if you’ve got any money, don’t bet on anything – least of all on a few days of talks between two deeply flawed party leaders suddenly supplying the country with a workable means of escape from the political black hole into which Brexit has plunged it for three, seemingly endless, years.

By Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.


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