Can it really hold the Remain vote while ignoring the issue?
It’s not true that the Conservatives have been split from top to bottom on the subject of Europe for the last 70 years. Occasionally, peace broke out and something approaching a consensus arose. The first decade of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership was one such, when the Tories were enthusiastic about the EEC and keen to complete the Single Market. Later, under William Hague, the party settled on what amounted to ‘thus far and no further’. But for most of the post-war era, EU enthusiasts have competed with sceptics for ascendency in policy and in the party.
That contest is, of course, still very much on. The great battle of In or Out is over for the time being, but the nature of Out is still up for grabs – or at least, as up for grabs as the scope for doing a deal with the EU allows. As yet, Britain’s engaged in a lot of can-kicking with warm words about the future. Fundamental contradictions remain to be resolved, particularly in Ireland.
For all that, it’s not the Tories who’ve just lost a front-bench spokesman over Europe. Owen Smith’s dismissal has the political feel of suicide-by-cop.
His was surely a sacking waiting to happen as soon as he called for a second referendum. It also smacks of opportunism. Labour’s voter and activist base remains strongly favourable to the EU and being sacked for voicing their views is unlikely to go down badly.
Not that it will make any difference. This isn’t a repeat of the mass resignations that followed Hilary Benn’s dismissal in 2016. Corbyn enjoys support among more than enough members to make any challenge to him utterly forlorn, and since the last leadership election, he’s gained control over the NEC, will shortly have the top level of Labour’s professional staff appointed on his watch (not by him directly but by an NEC favourable to him). Even the MPs are in the main either supine or supportive. It’s amazing what a good election can do.
The reality is that the leadership is in a position to define the parameters of Labour’s Europe policy quite tightly, which means that the question of Brexit itself is not to be asked. There will therefore be no second referendum and no mechanism for Britain to remain. Sometime next Spring – probably on March 29, Britain will leave. Furthermore, for the same reasons, come 2021, the UK will not only have left the EU de jure but will have done so de facto.
That is the point at which the Conservatives are likely to settle down into what passes for peace on Europe. There will be the disenchanted on both sides but the likelihood is that most MPs and members will accept the deal done and the general policy and will be happy to put the European Union behind them.
Not so for Labour. Well over three times as many Labour voters believe that Britain was wrong to leave the EU than believe it was right. A minority – but a vocal and potentially influential one – would have it as a priority to rejoin. Corbyn will no doubt rebuff those calls: he likes the flexibility that being outside the Single Market brings. However, that’s a problem for 2022.
Granted, there’s a lot of water to flow under the bridge between now and then, and we may well find ourselves diverted from that destination by the uncertain eddies of parliament and European negotiations. Will the government get its A50 deal this year? Can it sign a final agreement before December 2020 – or an extended deadline before the election? Will May retain her premiership through the process and if not, who will succeed her and what would he or she do? Will Corbyn remain leader of Labour (he looks secure for now but four years is a long time)? How hard a Brexit will ultimately be agreed? Will the DUP stay on board? Will the government even survive to 2022?
Individually, the answer to all the yes-no questions there is probably ‘yes’ but collectively? These are volatile years politically and it would be foolish to ignore the known-unknowns.
However, assume Brexit pans out relatively smoothly and that an acceptable formula is devised for N Ireland. What does Labour promise in its manifesto? Should it apply to rejoin or should it accept the new status quo? The leadership would no doubt like to let matters lie and to focus on domestic issues. It might not be so easy to do so. Conference in particular, which simply by the nature of the sort of people who become delegates is likely to have a disproportionately large number of Euro-enthusiasts compared to Labour’s voter base, could be vocal in calling for renewed membership.
Whatever is decided will have appreciable electoral consequences. Not all the large swing to Labour in London last year was a Brexit vote but a fair bit is likely to have been, despite Corbyn’s studied indifference to the issue. Those votes need to be retained in some way, without that issue and with the challenge – probably – of a new PM to campaign against.
As with the Tories, Europe is a policy which splits Labour and, for some, generates high passions. For all that, it won’t make or break either party: too much is invested elsewhere. What it is likely to do though, for Labour at least, is place a sizable barrier between the party and a fair portion of its potential voters.