Jeremy Corbyn Is Playing a Strong Hand Well on Brexit

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After days of shadow-boxing among the Labour Party’s leadership, and six hours of debate at an emergency meeting, Britain’s main opposition party has decided that its best Brexit strategy is the one it already has: constructive ambiguity.

Is this enlightened leadership from a potential government-in-waiting; evidence that it has a plan to resolve the Brexit impasse, restore faith in Parliament and heal the divisions in British society? Nothing of the sort. Is it smart politics? Sure.

Labour supported remaining in the European Union in the 2016 referendum, but then pledged to honor the leave result as part of its 2017 election manifesto. After a contentious party conference last year, it endorsed another referendum — but only if it couldn’t force through a general election or help get a good deal over the line. It has become the party of “Leave if possible, a Second Vote if necessary.”

That has made a lot of sense politically. The vast majority of Labour voters prefer to remain in the EU. Seeing Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, help a Conservative government deliver Brexit would feel like being stabbed in two places at once.

The problem is that most of those Labour-supporting remainers are clustered in Britain’s cities. By contrast, most of the party’s lawmakers represent constituencies in the country’s industrial heartlands that voted to leave. Labour will need to keep winning in those latter regions, and add to the ones it has, to give it any hope of forming the next government. Even in the European Parliamentary elections later this month, Labour is loath to see these votes go to Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party.

“Labour is the only party which represents both people who supported Leave and Remain,” a spokesman said after Tuesday night’s meeting. It’s easy to laugh at the chutzpah of such political contortionists, but there is calculation here too. The strategy allows Corbyn to claim to Leave-supporting voters that his party stands by its pledge to uphold the 2016 referendum result, and to its Remain-supporting voters that he’s still open to the possibility of a new referendum.

Corbyn and his coterie have been helped enormously by Theresa May’s shambolic Conservative government, which is seen as owning Brexit but unable to deliver it — not a great election-winning platform. And yet, while Labour has been able to just sit by and watch the Tories slowly implode, it may face a reckoning too at some point because of the deep divisions among its own voters and MPs.

Tom Watson, Corbyn’s deputy, had been pushing for an unequivocal commitment to a referendum, to better represent most Labour voters and to avoid losing ground to remain-supporting parties in local elections on Thursday and the European elections later in the month. Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit secretary, also supports a firmer referendum commitment.

Officially, Labour makes decisions through democratic processes, taking into account both its huge membership and the parliamentary party. But Corbyn’s grip on the party’s executive body gives him the final say. He has repeatedly downgraded the prospect of a second referendum since last year’s conference.

Labour’s continued Brexit fudge allows it the best of all worlds — for now. If the government caves into Labour demands to remain in the EU’s customs union, Corbyn can claim a victory. He can argue he has delivered on a manifesto pledge to prevent Britain from a disastrous no-deal exit. He even has the option, if the deal proves too unpopular with Labour supporters, to push for a so-called “confirmatory” vote between the deal and remaining in the EU.

If the government refuses to budge, or Labour can’t find a way to guarantee a deal will survive the knife of a Brexit-supporting successor to Theresa May (Boris Johnson is the front-runner), then it can say it tried to be constructive, and hold out for a general election or call for a second referendum.

That’s not to say there’s no danger here for Corbyn: There’s already a backlash against Labour’s decision to stay on the fence. If Remain-supporters vote for Labour in the forthcoming European elections, warns Jolyon Maugham, a lawyer and campaigner for canceling Brexit, “Labour will claim your vote as a vote for Brexit.”

Labour is aware that its approach doesn’t exactly smack of firm leadership. That’s why it’s been changing the subject lately, preferring to talk about climate change — another area of vulnerability for Conservatives. The luxury of opposition is that divisions can be papered over. Corbyn’s gamble is that he can ride the Brexit ambiguity all the way into Downing Street.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.