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Corbyn's Article 50 Fiasco Shows Labour Still Has No Brexit Plan

In one afternoon he managed to annoy his MPs, his base and nearly half the country.

by Gavin Haynes
20 January 2017, 12:17pm

Photo by Oscar Webb

As is widely known, "it is very clear" is the traditional preface for any politician about to say something very unclear. Even renegade master Jeremy Corbyn respects this most doughty of traditions, and so it was when he was asked whether or not he'd block Article 50

"It is very clear," he told Sky News yesterday. "The referendum made a decision that Britain was to leave the European Union. It was not to destroy jobs or living standards or communities, but it was to leave the European Union and to have a different relationship in the future."

Cue: 12 hours of the sort of clarifications, divisions and U-turns that mark anything that is "very clear".

A bad week. On Tuesday, Theresa May knocked over all of his skittles by demolishing Labour's official policy of cry-whining about there being "no plan" for Brexit. On Wednesday, he went to the Commons to joust her at PMQs. Maximum damage inflicted: he cringingly called her "The Irony Lady". On Thursday, to cap off his 2017 reboot, he hinted that there would be a three-line whip on his MPs to vote for triggering Article 50. In other words, MPs would be compelled by the party whips, on pain of political death, to vote for the triggering motion, expected in March.

By late afternoon some of that position was starting to sound far floppier, as mutiny broke out for the thousandth time on Labour's post-Brexit life raft. MPs with Remain constituencies decided their voters would go postal if they simply waved A50 through. A quick head count showed about 30 dissenters, plus four members of the Shadow Cabinet.

Clarifications were issued. It turned out that they would be "asked", rather than whipped. But would it be a one-line "ask" or a two-line "ask", or the three-line one initially suggested?

It's a breathtaking feat of triangulation. In one chaotic afternoon Corbyn managed to nark-off his MPs, his Momentum base, the 48-ers and anyone still wondering what the Labour Party was for.

It turns out that, after months of evolving a strategy around sniping at May for "having no plan", the real strategic vacuum lies within. Immediately after Corbyn's interview, Tim Farron was in there with a quip about him being "reported to Trading Standards for calling himself The Leader of the Opposition". The Lib Dems' policy is simple: get all the pro-EU people. UKIP's is even simpler. Miraculously, even the Tories seem to have salved their ancient wounds over Europe in the cooling milk of eternal power.

Meanwhile, Labour has no plan to resolve the basic tension between northern seats worried about migration and London seats worried about lack of migration, nor the tension between all of their MPs voting Remain and most of their constituencies voting Leave. Instead, they seem to have set upon a position slightly longer and more cumbersome than Michael Foot's 1983 Election Manifesto. Even that would seem to imply that this was written-down and fixed, instead of being a kind of flickering hologram designed to reflect whatever the viewer wishes to see.

For evidence look no further than the Shadow Minister for Leaving the European Union, Keir Starmer, who this week has been trying to make all of this mulch into something coherent, like a man trying to weave the Bayeaux Tapestry out of old Monster Munch multi-packs. His present idea is to praise Theresa May for still aiming for tariff-free access to the single market and claim this is as a "victory for Labour".

In the short-term, even as they sit a historic 17 points adrift, the Party can still argue that the situation will change. But the reality is that on present trajectory that is now impossible. Cast ahead to 2020 – if things go even moderately well, who gets the spoils? The Tories. And if the economy starts coughing up blood? Then the Lib Dems will be the channel for a nation's rage. Instead, Corbyn is casting his lot in with a pacifism that suits him instinctively, a kind of appeasement that history never looks kindly on. Without a huge rethink, there is no logic by which he can now win. 

In the 1970s, canny old fox Harold Wilson claimed that Labour was the party that best represented Britain because they "shared the same divisions as the country" over Europe. An argument between titans like Tony Benn and Roy Jenkins feels a world away from the latest off-the-record squabble between Emily Thornberry and Clive Lewis. In the 21st century, Labour can only best represent Britain because it's stuffed and drifting.

@gavhaynes

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