It might not be the most likely outcome. But the prospect of a Labour government has put Brexit back on the table writes Keiran Pedley.
After Thursday’s shock election result we are all waiting for the dust to settle to see where we are.
At the time of writing, Theresa May is hoping to cling on as Prime Minister with many sceptical that she will last the week. Her best hope, it seems, is that no consensus candidate emerges to replace her and Tory MPs get cold feet at the prospect of more instability that could lead to another General Election and a Corbyn-led Labour government. Nevertheless, she does look like a ‘dead woman walking’, as George Osborne put it to Andrew Marr. Although the conventional wisdom has been wrong so often recently maybe we should bet on her staying.
If she does hold on, even in the short term, attention will quickly turn to Brexit as formal negotiations are due to start very soon. Article 50 was invoked in March and the clock is very much ticking. The big question now is what sort of Brexit we get. Many are talking up the idea of a ‘soft Brexit’ (whatever that means) but I would go one further. I don’t think we can assume with any certainty that Brexit itself will actually happen at all.
I appreciate that this is a big statement to make but we need to consider how much Thursday has changed things.
The prospect of a Labour government throws all previous calculations on Brexit into doubt. We are about to enter some difficult negotiations and a period of political instability where the prospect of a no confidence vote in the Government and another General Election will never be far away. If negotiations falter, ‘no deal’ looks like a genuine possibility and the economy suffers, then public opinion could shift fast. If there is one thing we should have learned from the past 2 years it is that public opinion is fickle and volatile. In this context we should ponder the Survation poll that put Remain at 51% and Leave at 49%. This is before negotiations have started.
A path for Remain?
The point here is that if Brexit starts to falter we cannot be certain how public opinion and the Labour Party will react. Now that a Labour government is possible, the party’s position on Brexit takes on greater significance. This is without considering what terms the SNP and Lib Dems might place on supporting a future minority Labour administration’s Queen’s speech.
Ironically, this could present a major challenge for Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in the longer term. Right now he is untouchable but I wonder how his younger pro-Remain supporters will react if they see Brexit as the disaster they expected with the opportunity to reverse it within their grasp. Perhaps Corbyn will end up having to reevaluate his own position on Brexit’s inevitability. Politics is in flux right now and I see no reason to assume it is going to settle down any time soon.
There are of course many unknowns here. Not least whether Article 50 is actually reversible or whether the EU would even want Britain back. Far more likely than the UK remaining in the E.U. after all is some kind of interim EEA-style deal that allows Britain to leave with the finer details to be agreed later. Perhaps the new fault line in British politics will become Single Market membership rather than cancelling Brexit altogether.
However, this past week has taught me that what is fantasy one week can become reality the next. If this minority Conservative government tears itself apart over Europe – as Tory governments’ often do – don’t be surprised if voters decide that Brexit is not worth it after all. The Tories would never wear it of course but Labour might. The difference now is that what Labour thinks matters again.
Keiran Pedley is the presenter of the PB/Polling Matters podcast. He tweets about politics and public opinion at @keiranpedley