Parliamentary vs public process: a defence of Corbyn’s Brexit strategy

Jeremy Corbyn has taken quite a bashing over the last couple of days since his Guardian interview, which was interpreted first by the headline writers and then a wider commentariat as a stubborn personal commitment to Brexit, displayed even in the face of rising support for Remain in the wider public, against party members’ wishes, and even in contradiction of Labour’s most recent conference resolution.

The fact that, in the quoted parts of the interview, he was in line with the conference resolution [1], that he was clearly keeping a second referendum on the table, and that he moderated his claim to be able to do a Brexit deal with the EU by use of the word “trying”, need not detain us too long here. The Guardian does what the Guardian does for its readership numbers (and Stephen Bush suggests his magazine would have done the same), and if that means casting an interview about homelessness as a magic grandpa betraying the young, that’s what they’re going to do.

What interests me more specifically is why Corbyn does continue to commit quite forcefully to the idea of swift renegotiation of the Withdrawal Act and Political Declaration, even before March 29th such that Brexit can take place ‘on time’. Why does he not simply state and restate that May’s running down of the clock, by scandalous abuse of parliamentary norms, has led the country to a constitutional crisis which can only be resolved by a General Election and then a swift application to the EU for extension?

The answer, I think, lies in the fact that as a team Labour is wholly focused on the parliamentary process that will take place from January 7th onwards and, unless May again pulls out in a further attempt to stall, will culminate in a the meaningful vote on January 17th, potentially followed by a No Confidence vote. For now, I suggest, keeping a tight line on the parliamentary argument outweighs public hostility to Magic Grandpa, because doing so increases the chances of avoiding No Deal — the first crucial step — and then bringing May down.

Here’s the logic.

When we get to the meaningful vote, Labour will need to put an official amendment. While the wording will no doubt be left to the last possible moment, it is likely to be something along the lines of

That the government is instructed by parliament to undertake any measures necessary to avoid a ‘No Deal’ exit from the EU on March 29th.

This has a decent chance of success. A big enough number of Tory MPs may feel that they cannot vote an anti-No Deal motion down, because if May’s Deal is voted down as main motion, the road is actually open to the No Deal cliff edge. Even the January 21st stipulation emanating from the ‘Grieve Amendment’ leads only to the Government having to come back to the House with a ‘plan’ and this will consist of some “managed no deal” nonsense currently under narrative construction”.

Once passed, the anti- No Deal motion opens the way to a No Confidence vote, on the basis that May has nowhere left to go: she has stated, ad nauseam, that the current Deal is the only deal she can conclude with the EU, so she cannot validly seek yet another return to Brussels (she may still try), and extension of Article 50 is therefore pointless as well as already rejected.

But here’s the rub.

This strategy only works properly if Corbyn [2] says that he can do a deal with the EU by March 29th (and remember this is technically feasible so long as the focus remains, as it has from Labour, on a rewording of the Political Declaration rather than on the Withdrawal Agreement). It only works if there is, at least in theory, a renegotiation route to avoiding No Deal open to Corbyn, but not to May.

Then, with a General Election campaign in full swing, can come the pivot. Corbyn can the “listen to his members”, and agree a wording in the manifesto around May having run down the clock, and the need to go back to Brussels the day after entering No 10 to agree either a decent extension or (my preference) outright revocation and a deliberative process about a future relationship. The reality is that we will be in late February by then, with No Deal panic mounting, and this will not be a hard sell.

But the route to this position is a hard sell, primarily because the need to claim that a renegotiation can be done in a few weeks is fairly obviously contrived.

A few weeks ago, when it seemed May might actually honour parliamentary process and go through with the vote, it seemed less contrived — a window of three months is a lot bigger than three weeks — and May’s behaviour in the last few days has arguably risen Corbyn to anger precisely because it was going to lead to the current position, which verges on the absurd in terms of timings, but which he now has little choice but to stick with for the next three weeks. [3]

The alternative, promoted by the Guardian and the usual coterie of discontent Labour MPs, of pivoting to a second referendum, must have been very tempting. The reality, though, is that such short term fix would lead to an increased risk of No Deal, because it would secure May against that being ruled out at meaningful vote point, with Tory MPs able to assuage their consciences by arguing that an “any measures necessary” motion creates an impossibility for both sides.

This morning, May is probably smiling quietly over her Christmas cornflakes; she has abused parliament to the point of contempt, and in so doing pushed Corbyn into a difficult position, aided and abetted by the Guardian editors and others who prefer to pander to their circle of anti-Corbyns rather than face the reality that No Deal catastrophe, then an orderly exit from Brexit, is best managed by those who get parliamentary process.

If these people really want to help avoid the worst, then work towards the best, then they might be better employed supporting the kind of extra-parliamentary legislative process I have already mapped out, which will serve as a useful adjunct to the mid-January parliamentary crunch, if launched in early January.


[1] The attempt by one MP to suggest that a 2016 resolution on Brexit, passed to the Policy Forum for review, is current party policy was an interesting indication that, on the quiet, she acknowledges that Corbyn is fully in line with current policy.

[2] A style note: throughout this piece, I have used Corbyn policy as cipher for Labour party policy, in keeping with the way the whole issue has been personalised. I do not for one second think the actual parliamentary strategy is of Corbyn’s own design, and this does often come over in interview. I’d much rather, though, that he takes the personal hits for now while Starmer and team do the work behind the scenes to save us from No Deal. Equially, the question of whether Corbyn is a ‘secret Brexiteer’ is utterly irrelevant to the part he is having to play in all of this.

[3] Certainly, I never expected May’s tactics to be quite so damaging to parliament, and thought for a long time that she would at least try to honour the timetable set out with the EU last year, with a Deal and parliamentary vote in Autumn. Her rate of shift to what Anthony calls “authoritarian democracy” has been very disturbing, even though I long ago suggested decline in democracy would be a prime ministerial trend within this decade.



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Paul Cotterill

Paul Cotterill


Secretary General, Habermasian Labour (UK). Indefatigably focused on the promotion of ethical discourse in the public sphere, except when there's cricket.