In light of recent events, the only way Labour could stop Brexit would be through bringing down the government. Eric Shaw explains the circumstances under which this strategy could succeed, and why it does not involve Corbyn becoming Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister’s prorogation of parliament has been a much trailed but none the less an astonishing and highly controversial move: a ‘constitutional outrage’, according to the speaker, John Bercow, ‘profoundly undemocratic’ in the words of Phillip Hammond, until very recently the Tory chancellor. Britain’s prolonged political crisis is teetering on the edge of a constitutional one.
How can or should Labour respond? The nature of its response will obviously be affected by constitutional, legal, and parliamentary considerations determining the limits of what is possible. These have been extensively discussed in the media. But to understand how Labour is likely to react to the evolving crisis one has to grasp not only the present configuration of circumstances but also the mindset which it brings to bear.
For Labour’s radical left leadership, the crisis has a dual dimension: it is about the future shape of Britain’s relationship with the EU, but it is also about the prospects, indeed longevity, of the Corbyn leadership.
It is plain for all to see that a general election may well be imminent. Labour’s performance in 2017 was an extraordinary achievement, at 40% – the highest vote share since 2001. A recent YouGov poll, however, put Labour’s score at 22%. Even given a possibly short-lived Boris bounce, this suggests mass desertions from the party, which seems to be paying a high price for its inchoate position over Brexit.
Labour has struggled to formulate a clear policy on Brexit because, firstly, it has sought to balance the preferences of the two-thirds of its voters who are Remainers and the one-third who are Brexiteers; and, secondly, to accommodate sharp differences of opinion within its own ranks. Not only do a substantial number of Labour MPs in Leave-voting constituencies feel that their seats would be imperilled if the party blocked Brexit but the Corbynistas are themselves divided between Remainers and Eurosceptics, the latter including Corbyn and his most senior advisers.
So the party has swivelled, fudged, and vacillated and it is not surprising that many of its 2017 voters now find Labour’s position confused and incoherent, and have thus abandoned it. As a result, with an election beckoning, the party has found itself plummeting in the polls. The Corbyn leadership knows that a heavy defeat, perhaps any defeat, risks spelling either the end of the radical left experiment, or (if a Corbynista succeeds to the leadership) the end of Labour as a serious governing party.
Basically, Labour now has two options: find some parliamentary means to stop Brexit; or bring down the government. The problem with the first (favoured by Tory rebels) is that even it were successful it would leave totally unresolved Britain’s future relationship with the EU. Whilst the so-called ‘rebel alliance’ agree on stopping a ‘no deal’ Brexit they agree on little else.
On the second option, it is now seem that under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the PM can only be ejected if a successor demonstrates that they can command the confidence of the Commons – what the Germans call a ‘constructive vote of no confidence.’ So far Labour has insisted that the only acceptable and feasible alternative is the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. But it is difficult to conceive of any circumstances in which a sufficient number of Tory MPs would vote for Corbyn, not least because it would be an act of political suicide. So, realistically, there appears to be a very slim chance of Johnson being toppled by Labour’s leader.
Are there any others in the running? The names most frequently mentioned are Harriet Harman, Margaret Beckett, and Ken Clarke, all highly-experienced, astute and seasoned political operators. But as Labour MPs, Harman and Beckett’s elevation to the premiership would be unacceptable to Corbyn since it plainly challenges his authority in the party. Clarke’s would not. Indeed, promoting his accession to the premiership would have two advantages to the party. Firstly, any person who ousted Johnson would face virulent and unremitting hostility from the predominantly Tory press which would, in turn, fuel a vehement public backlash from Leavers. Clarke is one of very few politicians with the acumen, resilience, and popular appeal to cope with this. Secondly, Clarke’s prestige amongst Tory Remainers would maximise the number who would break ranks – and hence deepen divisions amongst Tory ranks.
Backing Clarke would then have a very good chance of succeeding, thereby stopping a no deal Brexit whilst having the additional advantage of sowing dissension in the Tory party. But the chances of Corbyn rallying behind him look slim. Partly this is because of old-style party tribalism, but also because of the leadership’s mindset. Everything is framed by internal party considerations with Corbyn and his top advisers convinced that the Remainers (amongst whom his most stringent critics) are using the issue of Brexit to undermine and discredit them. This mindset has, in turn, fostered a laager mentality in which long-term policy and strategic issues are always filtered by short-term tactical ones of political survival, rendering dispassionate thinking and judgment difficult. Added to this, the party is so riven with disagreements over the EU that taking any major initiative is difficult, requiring patient negotiation, complex manoeuvring and complex deal-making. But time is running out and decisive leadership is required.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).