Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Theresa May's Paralysis Gifts Jeremy Corbyn a Chance to Unite the Country over Brexit

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Theresa May's Paralysis Gifts Jeremy Corbyn a Chance to Unite the Country over Brexit

Article excerpt

There are roughly three positions within British politics on Brexit: quit everything European in order to strike free-trade deals with the rest of the world; stage a new referendum in order to reverse the Brexit process; or mitigate the impact of leaving the European Union by staying as close to its regulatory principles as possible or necessary.

This last position commands a majority in the House of Commons, has the technical support of both front benches and, as far as we know from polling, the British people too. It is also the right position.

Yet Theresa May's inability to turn that position into legislation--or even into a coherent negotiating strategy--looks increasingly likely to bring her down. She has scheduled a marathon one-day voting session in parliament on 12 June, during which the Conservatives will attempt to overturn all 15 amendments by the House of Lords to the Brexit bill, including--crucially--the commitment to staying in a customs union.

This commitment would kill de jure the right-wing Tory dream of independent trade deals, which has died de facto as May has retreated from hard Brexit rhetoric. That's why the Prime Minister's team has made it a do-or-die issue when, on almost all other aspects of the Brexit plan, they have moved closer and closer to mirroring the regulations of the single market.

For Jeremy Corbyn, there is an opportunity not just to defeat May on a customs union, which Labour supports, but to shatter the authority of her government and reset the terms of the Brexit negotiations. But the cards need to be played with care and dexterity.

To begin with, Labour needs to tone down its tribalism over a customs union. There are up to 15 Tory rebels prepared to uphold the Lords' decision. Even if a few diehard Lexiteers on the Labour benches vote with the government, that's enough to inflict defeat. Labour should impose a three-line whip on the customs union vote and make this--and only this--the issue of the day. It's not just about standing back and letting Anna Soubry or Dominic Grieve grandstand for a few moments: it's about Labour itself embracing the national interest argument for a customs union.

First, only a customs union can cement the Northern Irish peace deal. Second, by seeking a customs union with the EU, Britain will have made its first conciliatory gesture in the entire proceedings--a gesture that the Foreign Office could exploit to remove blockages and tensions over security co-operation and the Galileo satellite system. Third, only a customs union guarantees the future of the automobile, aerospace and energy manufacturing plants that have become the high-value core of British industry. Fourth, remaining in a customs union with the EU will be a major geopolitical commitment. It signals that, at a time when Donald Trump is starting a trade war and Vladimir Putin is trying to dismember Nato, we have chosen to be part of the biggest and most congruent economic trading and security partnership in the world, and the closest to Britain, despite its flaws. …

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