Denis MacShane / May 2019
The chances of some kind of harmonious coming together to secure a Brexit deal between Theresa May’s Tory Government and the Labour Opposition headed by Jeremy Corbyn seems less and less likely.
There are three principal reasons.
First, the main leader of the Labour Party, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, told the BBC on 5 May that Mrs May could not be trusted. He accused her of leaking key elements of the Government-Opposition talks in an article Mrs May wrote for the Mail of Sunday, the most virulently anti-Labour of any national paper.
This showed “bad faith” McDonnell declared.
While No 10 has been busy briefing the media an agreement with Labour was in the bag, here was the main decision-maker on Labour policy saying the Prime Minister could not be trusted.
Mrs May has just made a splash by firing her Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, because he leaked too much and could not be trusted with confidential high level information.
Now Labour is throwing exactly the same accusation in Mrs May’s face. This is not the language or atmosphere in which Labour will roll over to become Mrs May’s little helper to try and win support in the Commons for her deal.
Second, Mrs May is desperate to avoid the European Parliament election taking place in the UK as they will see an even bigger humiliation for her party and its candidates than was inflicted on her last week when Conservatives suffered their biggest local council election defeat since 1995 just before Labour won power in 1997.
It really doesn’t matter whether the Liberal Democratic repeat their spectacular success in municipal votes, or if Nigel Farage’s sleazy list of dubious candidates does well, or maybe the new Change UK Party, or indeed Labour which can hope to pick up a fair share of anti-government, anti-May protest votes as it did in the General Election two years ago.
The Tories will be heavily outvoted and may lose all or most of their MEPs.
But why should Labour give Mrs May a life-line by allowing her to proclaim a big negotiating victory in persuading Labour to support her Brexit deal?
To be sure, there are some Labour MPs and one important trade union, Unite, and advisers close to Corbyn who all favour Brexit but few if any of them will want to hand a major political victory in the Commons this week to Mrs May when they can enjoy her upcoming defeat and further demoralisation and chaos inside the Conservative Party at the the end of the month when the European Parliament election results come in.
Third and finally, Labour has far less room for manoeuvre than is realised. Most Labour MPs, councillors, activists and party members saw the big defeat for the Tories last week and the big surge for the Liberal Democrats as evidence that Brexit was losing popularity and traction. A YouGov poll published on Friday showed 61 per cent support for staying in Europe – the first time the 60 per cent barrier has been passed.
It is not that all Labour MPs are now converted to Remain but they can see that leaving the Liberal Democrats and Greens as the only party whose candidates are opposed to Brexit is costing Labour votes as Labour also suffered significant losses in the municipal elections which is unprecedented 9 years into an unpopular Tory government.
So Labour will stick to its key policies – namely that any agreement with Mrs May must at a minimum have an explicit commitment to staying in the EU Customs Union so the UK, even after Brexit, accepts it is part of the EU trade negotiations system and is not going to start bi-lateral trade deal with the US to import hormone modified beef and chlorine washed chicked.
Vague words about a customs arrangement only valid until the next general election which could happen this year will not do.
In May 1940, the Labour leader Clement Attlee was instructed by the Labour National Executive Committee, (NEC), the highest ruling organ of the party, to refuse any coalition under Neville Chamberlain. This opened the way to Churchill becoming Prime Minister with Attlee as his deputy.
In May 2019, the Labour NEC, basing itself on a decision of the party conference last year, repeated its policy line that Labour wanted to see a public vote – a new referendum – on any deal Mrs May used to obtain her wished for Brexit.
The exact nature of that public vote or new referendum has been shrouded in ambiguity as Corbyn continues to sit on the fence separating a minority of his MPs who think Brexit cannot not be questioned and a majority of MPs and party members who now see the dangers to the economy and jobs of Brexit especially as proposed in Mrs May’s unworkable deal.
So if Corbyn were to agree to hold Mrs May’s hand this week he would produce a serious backlash from Labour and leading shadow cabinet members. He would also not be able to even think about helping her without a firm commitment by the Prime Minister to a new public vote on her deal.
She is unlikely to offer that promise but Corbyn cannot repudiate the policy of his own party.
For all these reasons the chances of a deal emerging in the talks that restart on Tuesday between the Government and Labour are very small indeed.