A thin ray of light shone through the Brexit tangle last week. Two government defeats in the House of Commons marked the moment when Theresa May definitively lost control of the parliamentary process governing Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU).
This was always likely to happen given that the Tories have no majority and that most MPs voted to remain in the EU in the June 2016 referendum. Now it has.
But May was still counting on two things to get her withdrawal treaty through the House of Commons.
The first is Project Fear on stilts. It’s aimed at two audiences. The first consists of Remainers and moderate Brexiteers whom the government is seeking to terrify with stories that the sky will fall in if Britain leaves the EU on 29 March without a deal with Brussels.
The second are the hard Brexiteers whom the government is now warning that, if they don’t back May’s deal, Britain won’t leave the EU.
So the Sunday Times had a story, plainly planted by ministers, that a group of pro-Remain MPs are plotting what one calls “a very British coup” to seize control of the parliamentary agenda and suspend Britain’s notice to leave the EU under article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. These government tactics are so transparent that they were unlikely to stop a big defeat for May.
Secondly, May hopes that the EU will agree to tweak the withdrawal treaty. This would be intended to reassure Tory backbenchers and the Loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that the backstop designed to keep the border between the north and south of Ireland open won’t keep Britain permanently tied to the EU.
European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker says he’s in “continuous contact” with Downing St to prevent a “catastrophic” no deal Brexit. But Brussels is unlikely to concede enough to get the DUP onside.
The biggest problem with all this is that most of us are simply spectators in these increasingly frenzied manoeuvres centred on a fragmented and disoriented political elite in Westminster. One escape from the resulting passivity would be to hold a second referendum.
This is being pressed increasingly on Jeremy Corbyn by the Labour right wing and the pro-Remain wing of the media—the Guardian, Channel Four News, etc. This so-called “People’s Vote” would, of course, be less about the deal than about reversing the result of the 2016 referendum.
If it happened, it would belong to a long-standing pattern where Brussels insists that member states restage referendums until they get the right result. But I doubt if this option will muster a majority of MPs. Many Remainers fear the divisive effects of overruling the 2016 vote.
So how to break out of the deadlock? Corbyn offered a way forward in his speech in Wakefield last week. He insisted on the class antagonism polarising British society.
“The truth is, the real divide in our country is not between those who voted to Remain in the EU and those who voted to Leave,” he said. “It is between the many—who do the work, who create the wealth and pay their taxes, and the few—who set the rules, who reap the rewards and so often dodge taxes.”
And Corbyn called for working class unity. He compared Remain voters in Tottenham and Leave voters in Mansfield, and the common problems of low pay, debt, and insecurity that they face—“You’re up against it. But you’re not against each other.”
Corbyn’s demand for a general election that could return a “radical Labour government” offering an alternative to austerity for working class Leavers and Remainers alike makes sense. The problem is that neither the Labour Party nor the trade union leaders are campaigning in support of this call.
Thus the People’s Assembly march last Saturday could only muster about 5,000 people. It was a perfectly respectable mobilisation of the radical left in southern England but with very limited involvement from the unions and Labour. If Corbyn launched a campaign of mass rallies demanding an election, this could help wrest our future away from the Westminster plotters.