Jeremy Corbyn Can't Have It Both Ways on Brexit

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Theresa May has finally grasped that she cannot deliver Brexit by relying on her bitterly divided Conservative Party and its Northern Irish allies. And yet the only other British political leader who could help is refusing to lend a hand.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has pledged himself to deliver on the 2016 Brexit referendum, though his party has since been conveniently vague about what that means. For a time, it was hard to fault them. The government thumbed its nose at parliament and avoided consulting the opposition until the 11th hour. And it was the Tories who called the referendum in the first place.

There may have been impeccable party-political logic to this position in 2016, but it now risks backfiring on the Labour Party. The minute May prevailed in the no-confidence vote Wednesday called by Corbyn, all eyes turned to the opposition leader: what next?

If the prime minister has been humbled by the defeat of her negotiated deal, at least outwardly, Corbyn has not. In the wake of Tuesday's vote, May called on the Labour leader to discuss a consensus approach. He refused; she must first rule out leaving the European Union without a deal before he will talk, he said.

The sharpest criticism of his rebuff came from his own benches: “Apparently Corbyn is prepared to hold talks with Hamas, Hezbollah, Assad and Iran without preconditions. But not with the U.K. prime minister.” Labour lawmaker Mike Gapes noted.

Corbyn’s refusal to meet May isn't such a surprise. He pretends to be a bystander in a Brexit train-wreck, but in fact he shares responsibility for it. His party formally supported remaining in the EU but refused to work with the official, Conservative-led remain campaign. A longtime euroskeptic – too capitalist, too in the pocket of multinationals, is his view – he was notably absent from the campaign trail. Labour voters, especially in poorer northern constituencies hard hit by austerity and unnerved by what they saw as unchecked immigration, threw in with the leavers.

Once the U.K. voted out, Corbyn pushed hard for May to trigger Article 50, starting the two-year negotiating clock. With two-thirds of his MPs representing leave-voting constituencies (even if a similar majority of Labour voters in mostly urban centers voted to stay), he wanted to prove more Brexity than them all. But neither he nor May had any idea what could be negotiated.

Theresa May has now survived two no-confidence votes; one tabled by her own party and the other by the opposition. But in 2016, Labour MPs voted 172-40 against Corbyn in a vote of confidence. It wasn't binding, and he ignored it. The difference is that his control over his party has looked unshakable.

Corbyn portrays the Labour Party as a big family that decides policy around the dinner table and where all voices are equal, but the leader appoints the shadow cabinet, and has the loyalty of Labour's National Executive Committee. Dissenters don't do well under this regime.

Corbyn has sought to keep Labourites inside the tent through a clever fudge – constructive ambiguity. His shadow cabinet lobbed fake grenades at the government during parliamentary debates but dodged questions about what it really wanted.

And he keeps moving the goalposts: Where the policy had been to support a referendum if a general election was impossible, he now hints at continued attempts to force a vote. He says his goal is a customs union with a "say in future trade deals," though doesn't spell out how that would work, and refuses to talk to May about his ideas.

Corbyn's call to rule out a no-deal Brexit does have a logic behind it. He knows it’s something May cannot offer: crashing out is the default outcome unless parliament decides a different course. But it gives him a way to surreptitiously rewrite May’s mantra that "no deal is better than a bad deal” into "remaining is better than a bad deal” – a position the Conservative Party wouldn’t wear, and he knows it. He is forcing May to choose between her party and her country.

And yet this is a choice Corbyn himself is unwilling to make. In a speech in the (barely) Tory constituency of Hastings on Wednesday, he called May's outreach a stunt. And he may have a point. It's reasonable to question whether May's pitch for a new consensus politics is sincere. She has refused to compromise even with dissenters in her cabinet, let alone her party. Is she really now going to bend for the opposition?

Even so, it's worth taking her at her word as she may have no choice. The alternatives are simple: no deal at all, seeking a referendum or calling a general election. Corbyn doesn't have much to lose by talking and smoking out May's real zone of compromise. On the contrary, he could show his party can be a constructive force at a historic moment.

As it stands, Labour looks cynical, opportunistic and hapless. It lacks both vision and leadership on Brexit. It seems that some of his MPs are already disobeying a direct order and meeting with the government. This must be an uncomfortable moment especially for Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, who has often expressed his own view that Brexit is too important for party politics to dominate the course of action. His boss clearly sees it otherwise.

We have passed the point where the Labour Party can stay on the fence. If there’s no will to go back to voters, finding a consensus deal in parliament is the best way to avoid crashing out. If Labour refuses to engage, voters will remember. May has been criticized for being uncompromising and refusing to see reality; but could that be an even more apt description of the opposition now?

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.

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