The time for triangulation is over. If Corbyn wants to keep his reputation as a nearly uniquely honest broker, it's time to follow the membership and take a positionby Emma Burnell / January 17, 2019 / Leave a comment
Theresa May put her worst day behind her pretty quickly. Being thumped by a margin of 230 votes would cause most of us to have no confidence in ourselves, never mind asking anyone else to. But by immediately winning a confidence vote the next day May has had a chance—briefly—to change the narrative.
While Labour was right to call that vote (they really had no choice) the pre-briefing of it being just the first of many seems to have fallen flat as all the other opposition parties have refused to countenance it. And Labour may be less keen than their initial bravado suggested to give May repeated and possibly ever more comfortable wins. What may have seemed like a clever strategy to avoid giving Labour members what they desperately desire—i.e. Labour support for a People’s Vote—was quickly exposed as giving Tories exactly what they wanted instead.
Immediately after the vote, Theresa May went on the TV to bemoan the fact that Jeremy Corbyn refuses to hold talks with her until she takes “no deal” off the table. On that point, many of Twitter’s #FBPE crowd agreed with May, rounding on Corbyn for not working with May to agree a deal. (A deal that—let’s face it—the hashtag crowd would reject out of hand anyway; there is no deal that is as good as staying in if you’re an ardent enough Remainer to use a hashtag as part of your identity.)
Corbyn must feel damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. He makes a decisive statement against “no deal” and is still getting it in the neck from Remainers. What more do they want?
The truth is, they want a lot more. And many of them are members of his party, and loyal Corbyn-supporting ones at that. They understand—perhaps more than Corbyn does, or at least lets on—that “no deal” is not something that can really come off the table until either a deal is agreed or Article 50 is revoked or extended. “No deal” is the terrifying default towards which the UK is careening. It can stopped only by someone taking action—not by Labour taking their ball home.
If that action is led by someone other than Corbyn he gets all the ambiguity and none of the credit. The PM is trying to paint Corbyn as to blame when she inevitably returns with a Brexit deal that goes down just as badly as the last one. Any imaginable tweaks the EU might be willing to make will seem like very weak beer for hard Brexiteers. She has already ruled our changes that might make it more palatable to soft Remainers. She knows this, and that’s why, this time, she’s trying to share the blame.
But I can’t see who this argument, at this time, delivered by this messenger, works for. Those who already hold Corbyn responsible for inaction didn’t need moving on that point, and those that don’t won’t be persuaded to do so by May. It just makes both sides look like the petulant children the public believe politicians are at heart.
However, if not holding talks becomes yet another delaying tactic in the Labour leadership talking to the Party about what they want Labour’s next steps should be, that could spell danger for Corbyn. If he is seen as gameplaying and hiding behind stalled negotiations he loses his reputation in the party as an almost uniquely honest broker. That way disappointment and disillusionment lie.
Corbyn has humiliated the government this week, but winning the vote of no confidence gave May back some momentum. What she can do with it is a different matter. By imperiously shutting down options such as a customs union, May seems to have learned nothing about the art of negotiation (though her Cabinet seem less clear on this point). Little surprise then that the deal she has, and the way she has sold it, have been such a failure.
Labour need to move swiftly and decisively to own this moment. Corbyn should be at the head of that movement. First by listening to his party and then by acting on what it says. Every day Labour’s leadership stalls on this is a day they become further adrift from the passionate will of their members.
Labour failed to convince Parliament that they are an alternative government in waiting. That’s not a surprise in the most partisan place in the country. They were never going to have the numbers. They now need to take that argument to the Party and the country. They can’t do that by sitting back and waiting for May to fail. Ambiguity is over.