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Why is Jeremy Corbyn really demanding that No Deal be taken off the table?

Mr Corbyn’s demand for No Deal to be taken off the table before he’ll even talk to Mrs May about Brexit options seems illogical. No Deal is the absence of a deal, so surely there’s actually nothing to take off the table even if Mrs May wanted to.

When he explains his position, Mr Corbyn says what he actually wants is that she should stop the Article 50 clock ticking down to 29th March 2019, taking the No Deal gun away from politicians’ heads while they work out some sort of solution.

The problem with this, though, is that not only would Parliament need to pass new legislation to stop the clock, but Mrs May would also have to agree it with the EU, as the UK cannot unilaterally extend the Article 50 timetable.

And the problem there is that the EU has made it abundantly clear they will only agree to an Article 50 extension, if doing so can confidently be expected to resolve the matter. Just allowing UK politicians even more time to argue about it isn’t enough.

That’s not unreasonable. For example, delaying Brexit would significantly complicate this year’s European Parliamentary elections and the resulting voting arithmetic, as we currently contribute nearly 10% of the total number of MEPs. And that’s over and above the UK’s weighted voting rights in the EU Council, and our ability to block decisions that have to be unanimous.

Mrs May has argued strongly against seeking to delay the Article 50 deadline for this reason, and as negotiating leverage against the EU since they surely want a deal as much as we do. Having said that, she is clearly also using the 29th March deadline to keep up the pressure in Westminster to try to force through acceptance of her deal, against the fear of our crashing out on 29th March 2019 with No Deal. This is the gun being held to MPs’ heads.

Unless Parliament is successful in actually wresting the decision away from the Government (i.e. not just passing a motion which Mrs May can ignore) and somehow forcing her to seek an extension from the EU, Mrs May does indeed hold this loaded gun. Whether she’s willing to pull the trigger is another question.

So, assuming he can’t actually force Mrs May to put down the gun, what does Mr Corbyn really want?

I think the answer lies in Labour’s second referendum conundrum. Why is Mr Corbyn so reluctant to call for that, even though the majority of Labour’s members and MPs apparently want it?

After all, if Labour formally demands a second referendum and whips its MPs accordingly, that could well win a compelling majority in Westminster. This is expressly why, on 24th January, the cross-party group of MPs withdrew their amendment calling for it, and implored the Labour leadership to take it on instead. The last thing the second referendum campaigners want is for it to be voted down, when they are pretty sure there would in fact be majority support for it in Parliament.

I’ve argued previously that Mrs May actually wants to be strong-armed into holding a second referendum if she can’t get her deal through at Westminster, so that she can blame her opponents for what she says would be a move that would undermine trust in our politicians for not delivering on the first referendum. She remains the true democrat wanting to honour the 2016 referendum, as well as sticking to her manifesto pledge to do so.

Mr Corbyn probably agrees with her on this, and would far rather someone else got the blame. So that’s a pretty good reason for his hoping Parliament would do the job for him. But it now looks like that cover has blown, and yet still he hesitates.

As for the necessary extension of Article 50 to allow time for a second referendum, providing the result would be clear, certain to be deliverable, and binding on the Government, there’s every reason to believe the EU would agree. So that particular issue shouldn’t prevent Mr Corbyn calling for a second referendum, in contrast to just demanding a delay for no solid reason as he is now. Why, then, is he demanding something that’s apparently illogical, instead of something that – however unpalatable to many – makes sense?

I think the reason Mr Corbyn is really demanding that Mrs May takes No Deal off the table before talking to her about anything, is that it’s not the table he wants it off: it’s the second referendum ballot. It’s all about how to maximise the chances of Labour winning the second referendum, and cause maximum difficulty for the Government in the process.

Look it at it like this. Clearly the Government would have to insist on Mrs May’s Deal being one option on the ballot, albeit with some version of the problematic Irish Backstop. Mrs May simply cannot roll over on a customs union, as that would preclude independent international trade deals; nor on Norway-style Single Market access, as that would require yielding on freedom of movement, continuing annual payments, and accepting EU Single Market regulations with no say in them – Boris Johnson’s feared ‘vassal state’ option. Such voluntary concessions would breach the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto commitments, and could well split the Party.

The Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists would insist on Remain being included, as that’s always been their position. Including this option would be contentious – not only in the eyes of Brexiteers, but also for many people who fear damaging social consequences should Remain win in a second referendum. But it’s a risk that may just have to be accepted.

Labour can’t support either of those options. When writing in November, I didn’t consider Labour’s conundrum. It’s clear that they must have an option on the ballot that’s neither Mrs May’s Deal (which they oppose on principle, as otherwise they could support it now), nor Remain (which would breach Labour’s 2017 manifesto commitment to respect the 2016 referendum decision).

Labour currently look likely to back the Norway+ option (Single Market access and a customs union, avoiding the need for the contentious Irish Backstop). Given Labour’s awkwardly split voting base – with hard Brexiteers in their post-industrial English heartlands, and vehement Remainers in Scotland and the South as well as the vast majority of their much expanded Party membership – soft Brexit probably makes the most sense.

Norway+ should be clear and deliverable enough, and have sufficient support in Westminster, for Mrs May (and the Electoral Commission who’ll make the final decision) to agree for that option being on the ballot as well.

The Democratic Unionists (who campaigned for Leave in 2016) could only support Mrs May’s Deal if the Irish Backstop were watered down more than it seems the EU will wear. If that’s wrong and the EU will move far enough to satisfy the DUP, then Mrs May’s Deal could well just get through Westminster without further ado. But let’s assume for now that the EU doesn’t accommodate the DUP.

This creates a problem for the hard Brexit favouring DUP, who may find themselves boxed into supporting Norway+ as the only way to leave without an Irish Backstop. Needing the DUP’s support generally is, incidentally, another reason for Mrs May wanting to be bullied into holding a second referendum.

But the one thing none of the opposition parties – nor the majority of Tory MPs – really wants is No Deal on the ballot. The only people who really want it there and would campaign for it are the hard Brexiteers.

And here’s Mr Corbyn’s angle. As the hard Brexiteers see the increasing likelihood of a second referendum, they are no doubt demanding that No Deal is also on the ballot if it happens. They plainly don’t support Mrs May’s Deal, let alone a very soft Brexit like Norway+, or of course Remain.

Mrs May should logically accede to the hard Brexiteers’ demand, as it would allow the electorate to vote on leaving with No Deal, and finally put that idea to bed one way or the other. More importantly though, it could be necessary to avoid a split in the Conservative Party.

Another significant factor is that, as few would feel comfortable essentially just re-running the 2016 referendum, adding more options on how we leave adds greater legitimacy to a second referendum, helping to address concerns around holding it at all.

This, then, is the real battleground. When I wrote about the Brexit situation in November, I thought the second referendum choices would be Mrs May’s Deal, No Deal, or Remain (No Brexit), with the winner probably being Mrs May’s Deal using the Single Transferable Vote system, assuming No Dealer’s would come third and opt for the other Brexit option as their second preference.

If Labour get Norway+ onto the ballot as well as Mrs May’s Deal and Remain, and manage to keep No Deal off it, it’s far from clear which of these three options would come last and have its second preference votes counted. Remainers’ second preferences would presumably be for the softer Brexit option of Norway+. Mrs May’s Deal voters would also presumably prefer Norway+ as their second preference, it being the other Brexit option. So unless Norway+ comes third, it’s likely to win. In other words, there’d be a decent chance that Labour could defeat the Conservatives in the referendum.

But if No Deal is also on the ballot giving three Brexit options as well as Remain, the Brexit vote is going to be more split, and Mrs May’s Deal could well seem the most moderate Brexit compromise and attract more support as a result.

Moreover, as we saw in 2016, the hard Brexiteers are the most passionate campaigners and could well attract a surprising amount of support; whereas the soft Brexiteers are largely Remainers who are only going along with Brexit to respect the 2016 decision, trying to minimise the damage they believe any Brexit will cause. It’s hard to argue well for something you don’t really want, especially as what you really want – Remain – will also be on the ballot.

Surely the hard Brexiteers could not campaign enthusiastically for Mrs May’s Deal, even in the absence of a No Deal option, bearing in mind their Conservative European Research Group associates have already been willing to risk the survival of their own Government to resist it? So getting No Deal off the ballot would not only cause Mrs May problems with many of her own Party, but could also be expected to muffle a lot of the most articulate support for a harder Brexit than Norway+. This will surely not have been lost on Mr Corbyn.

On the other hand, including No Deal as a third Brexit option – each supported by no doubt well-funded campaigns – should logically win more support for Brexit overall than for Remain. The same old Remain voices who lost last time will keep arguing about frankly boring economic and security issues that are hard for individual voters to relate to their own lives; whereas the Brexiteers will again focus on more personal feelings about taking back control from remote elites and cultural erosion.

This is not to patronise Leavers. Their concerns are every bit as legitimate. My point is that they resonate more with voters. Unless we vote purely on Party lines, we tend to vote for MPs we like and who we feel reflect our values, more than we do for their specific positions on a variety of policies like the minimum wage, HS2 or defence spending. Who really checks all the candidates’ detailed policy positions before a General Election? The same goes for arguments about the EU. Let’s be honest. Most of us decide on something so complex based on how we feel about it, and then rationalise that decision with selective facts and arguments.

What’s more, regardless of the respective strength of arguments on any subject, those campaigning to change things will always be more passionate than those campaigning to do nothing. The Remainers would therefore have to convince the public that their no change option is in fact a change from the current status quo of Brexit. Not easy.

Returning to Mr Corbyn’s conundrum, if the pundits and pollsters are right, No Deal should nevertheless still come last if it is on the ballot, despite being buoyed by the hard Brexiteers’ more engaging campaigning. Assuming Mrs May’s Deal is more appealing to No Dealers than the softer Norway+ option, redistributing No Dealers’ second preference votes could push Mrs May’s Deal over the line. The Conservatives beating Labour in the referendum.

Yes, once No Deal is eliminated, we’re back to the three other options as before. It just seems to me that passionate and articulate No Deal campaigning could well alter attitudes in favour of a harder rather than a softer Brexit, boosting Mrs May’s Deal’s chances of success.

These are the kind of equations that may be going through Mr Corbyn’s mind. He’d rather not be blamed for the second referendum. But if he can’t avoid that, then he needs to try to maximise Labour’s chances of winning it, and this analysis suggests that his best bet for doing that is keeping No Deal off the ballot. So perhaps that’s why he’s demanding No Deal be taken ‘off the table’.

 

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©2020, RICHARD HORWOOD