The UK and Europe

Theresa May's new old proposal

Denis MacShane / May 2019

Photo: Shutterstock

Theresa May is again playing an old Brexit card – claiming it is a new proposal. She is proposing that a bill to give effect to the Withdrawal Agreement should be put to MPs early in June. It will include commitments aimed at enticing Labour MPs to vote for her. These include a reference to a customs union with the UK able to negotiate its own trade deals. This was suggestion from Jeremy Corbyn in February 2018. It is magical realism Brexit – both in the Customs Union and out of it at the same time as the idea of a member state of a Customs Union being able to negotiate separate trade deals is a contradiction in terms.

She also proposes that at some stage in the future the Commons could vote for a new referendum. This too makes no sense. The Commons has already rejected a new referendum and in December Mrs May told the BBC she rejected suggestions that the UK should vote in a second referendum, saying that the public has already made its decision. If public and political opinion change of course MPs can call for and vote for a second referendum. She made her statement through gritted teeth without enthusiasm and did not endorse it as her policy.

There is a vague call for continuing examination of the famous backstop but Mrs May is not proposing to change the words on the Irish border in the Withdrawal Agreement so hardline Tory and DUP MPs will not give up their current line. By chance I was in Andorra visiting my third daughter this weekend. The border and customs installations between tiny non-EU Andorra and Spain are massive buildings, inspection sheds, armed guard, long queues of cars and lorries.

For Labour this statement comes at just the wrong time. There is huge anger in Labour at the failure of Jeremy Corbyn to come out against Brexit, and his fence-sitting on the idea of the people being consulted. I have met so many Labour friends – ex MPs, pro-Labour journalists, intellectuals, party activists – who are voting in the European Parliament election for Liberal Democratic, Green, SNP and other parties who are unambiguously anti-Brexit. Opinion polls show Labour coming third in London behind the Farage Brexit party and the LibDems.

This will be a major humiliation for Corbyn and show the widening gap between Corbyn as the vast majority of Labour MPs, local party activists, supports who want to see a more committed pro-European line from the Labour leadership.

In this sensitive context, it is unlikely that Corbyn will want to act as Mrs May’s little helper to get this deal through so she can present it as a parliamentary triumph for herself – Brexit mission accomplished by the Prime Minister.

There are some Labour MPs who get publicity for their view that Labour has to endorse the plebiscite result of 3 years ago. It has been the same small coterie of self-regarding Labour MPs which has not increased in size since end 2016.

I find it unlikely in the extreme that most Labour MPs and the Labour Party leadership itself will want to offer any helping hand to Mrs May. So the assumption has to be that there will be no parliamentary breakthrough in London next month. The discussions over the next EU leadership team and its policies will take place in June and July followed by the summer vacations.

It is assumed that Mrs May will stand down and the Tory Party is plunged into a vicious personalized contest over the next leader and hence PM with the decision taken by rank and file party activists in 650 Conservative Associations in each constituency. That new leader and Prime Minister should emerge to be crowned at the Conservative Party conference early October 2019. He is likely to ask the EU for talks about the Brexit deal. This will require a new extension starting on 1 November. There is plenty of discussion on whether that will be acceptable to the EU27.

But as we approach the third anniversary of the Brexit referendum it is clear that a solution to Brexit remains as far away as ever.

Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

May 2019

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