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The political pundits were divided yesterday. Is Jeremy Corbyn is taking his remainer supporters for a ride again, or is he finally being pressured into softening his Brexit stance? It’s not yet entirely clear, but if Corbyn finally grasps the opportunity to turn the screw on the government, the Brexit chaos may only just be beginning.
Labour is proposing an “internal market” that would apparently deliver a new and close relationship with the European Union but not require membership. This is simply a restatement of the unrealistic expectations contained within Keir Starmer’s “six tests” which would only deem the Brexit deal a success if all the benefits of the Single Market were retained. It’s clearly designed to retain the option for Labour to vote down the final Brexit deal.
So, Labour’s Brexit policy is to have all the advantages of the Single Market without actually being in it nor signing up to all of the necessary obligations of membership. This is clearly cake-ism rather than a serious policy. It’s a stick to beat the government with, nothing more.
The Labour leadership is explicitly rejecting the opportunity to back membership of the European Economic Area, which would allow Britain to be a member of the Single Market from outside the EU. Corbyn said: “We are confident we can build a new relationship with the EU. We want the UK to have a better deal than the Norway model.”
There is no detail on what the criteria is for a deal that is “better than the Norway model”. The EEA Agreement is an existing legal framework and a fully functioning system for trade and political cooperation – a deep and special partnership even. It is simply not realistic to expect that the UK can negotiate an agreement better than this that offers the same benefits of the Single Market.
Corbyn is known to be against the EEA because he believes the Single Market is a neoliberal project that will restrict his socialist policies. Another option would be to negotiate a fully bespoke, new Association Agreement – an overarching treaty encompassing agreements on trade, customs, security and political cooperation. Andrew Duff, the federalist President of the Spinelli group, has long asserted that this option would allow the UK to create a deal superior to the EEA.
This is not however what Corbyn has in mind. Remainers within his party and amongst his supporters have ramped up the pressure and the Labour leadership has been forced to placate them. There was a time when the remain cause seemed utterly lose because the long term Eurosceptic Corbyn would be certain to vote with the government to support the Brexit deal. Now the stage is set for a political rupture that will turn the table over and throw British politics into chaos.
In the Autumn the Commons will vote on the motion on the final deal reached from Article 50 negotiations. If Labour holds to its policy demanding that the deal retains all the advantages of Single Market and Customs Union membership, it has its excuse to oppose the motion in which case it will be rejected by the Commons which opens up a range of possibilities.
The government could collapse. Theresa May could be forced out and an unpredictable leadership contest called. The government could hold and plead for an extension to the negotiations. To resolve the political mess an election might have to be called. If Jeremy Corbyn sees this as an opportunity to take power then he may set aside Eurosceptic instincts in favour of his political ambitions. What that would mean for Brexit I wouldn’t like to predict.
We are now back in ‘anything could happen’ territory.