17 January 2019

Four options and an impasse

After the failure of the No Confidence vote, Mark Perryman outlines the hard choices Labour now has to make. 

It was good that Labour’s no-confidence motion went in straightaway, as the popular mood right now is very anti-May. Labour pressed ahead with cross-party support, with the Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid and the Greens all backing it. The Tories and the DUP voted against, while ex-Labour, now ‘independent’, MPs Ivan Lewis and John Woodcock brought up the rear by abstaining. Having just voted down May’s deal, this made them look self-serving at best, idiotic at worst. All of this was positive, but there was never a hope in hell of the no-confidence motion passing and, sure enough, it didn’t. And until either the DUP decides to break with the Tories, or a group of Tory MPs publicly splits from their own party, it won’t pass the next time either. Move on.

What hasn’t changed is the impasse: Labour remains in desperate need of finding a way out of it. Not only is the party and its vote split, but increasingly a previously pretty much homogeneous Corbynite left is too – Paul Mason (second referendum now) v. Owen Jones (Norway Plus, least-worst solution), if you prefer. Much of this is not so much about major disagreement, as it is about getting the order of what Labour needs to do right. It’s also an instance of the age-old error of mistaking a tactic for a strategy.

In place of all this, I offer four sequential options. The order they are taken in, as much as the choices themselves, is crucial. Labour started off this sequence of events right: a massive defeat of May’s deal, followed by an immediate no-confidence vote and then insisting on no talks until No Deal is ruled out. Now for the rest.

Option 1. There will now be a brief pause while May seeks to cobble together yet another deal to secure a parliamentary majority by way of EU concessions. Fat chance of this succeeding. Nevertheless, Labour must again seek to maximise the vote against: nothing should get in the way of seeking as big a defeat as possible. There’s still no chance of passing of a no-confidence vote, however, so we can forget that. At most, May might resign at this point, but unless the Tories call a General Election – Fat Chance no. Two – nothing much changes, and we’re back to ‘No Deal’ or bust. 

Option 2. Corbyn’s position of no talks with May without her ruling out No Deal is spot on. Having defeated her second deal, Labour should somehow force a parliamentary vote explicitly to rule out No Deal. Labour must take the lead, with the backing of the other opposition parties, plus Tory Remainers. We know there’s a parliamentary majority against No Deal. But, in the absence of a deal, come Brexit Day, 29 March 2019, it will happen by default. Hence Option Three.

Option 3. If there’s no parliamentary majority for any deal May can come up with, no early General Election, and no second referendum as the clock runs down to 29 March, then #torybrexittotalchaos is about to get a whole lot worse. Labour should then propose an extension of Article 50. There’s a considerable stumbling block, however. If Article 50 is extended, do the UK’s elections to the European Parliament go ahead? They’re on 23 May. Remember that at the last Euro elections, in 2015, UKIP topped the poll. If the elections go ahead, we are recognising that we might be in the EU for some time yet; if they don’t, and we somehow decide to stay in, can UK MEPs be elected at a later date? This is a difficult one. Nevertheless, an Article 50 extension seems likely. If the government doesn’t seek an extension, it will be down to Labour, in conjunction with the other opposition parties, to propose a motion to seek one, securing a majority for the motion via Tory Remain rebel support. There will be some electoral consequences for Labour, mostly bad, but if there’s no deal, what is the alternative? Labour must do its very best to pin the blame for this where it belongs, with the Tories’ three years worth of uselessness handling the negotiations with the EU.

Option 4. The only current parliamentary majority is for the softest of Brexits. With all other options defeated and Article 50 extended, Labour should not just back this option, but seek to shape it. The Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid and the Greens would likely support such a move, unless they insist on being prima donnas for narrow party electoral advantage (of which there might be some). And there’s a decent chance of getting enough Tory Remain rebels on board, at no cost to Labour.

Within a few days, not only the no-confidence motion, but May’s second deal, will have been voted down. Whether or not Labour is the one to propose it, the chances of a motion for a second referendum passing are close to nil. Far more likely is that Article 50 will have been extended. The Tory hard right will be fuming and baying for No Deal; UKIP will be surging in the polls. Then Labour, not May, should take the lead to engineer a Brexit that has the kind of cross-party support that May has signally failed to deliver. With Keir Starmer acting as convenor, this will be Labour behaving like a government-in-waiting. They must insist that any soft Brexit deal then goes to a referendum. There should be four boxes to tick: Remain, soft Brexit, No Deal, and Leave. Single transferable vote. 66% threshold to pass, if none do, then it’s back to the drawing board. Messy? Yes, it’s called democracy.

And then there’s the Nuclear Option. Labour isn’t the government. It does not command a parliamentary majority.  The Tories got us into this mess; it’s theirs to own, fail to clear up, and leave the rest of us with the almightily bad consequences. Not nice, but in all likelihood, it’s the option we’ll end up with.


Mark Perryman is the editor of The Corbyn Effect. His new book Corbynism from Below will be published by Lawrence & Wishart in September.