The coming Battle of Brighton could determine the fate of Brexit

The coming Battle of Brighton could determine the fate of Brexit

If Labour sticks to its current fudge of a policy, No Deal is the likely outcome

Conferences don’t usually matter. These days, they’re mostly occasions when the party can try to sell itself and its policies to the media and the public – a glorified party political broadcast, if you like – while also acting as a bonding exercise for members of that party. It doesn’t always work out like that of course, but those are the primary aims.

For Labour and the Lib Dems, however, there is another purpose: to set policy. The Tories have – wisely, in my opinion – never gone in for allowing members to dictate to MPs what their policies should be: they’re the wrong people in the wrong place to be doing so. Usually, these policy positions don’t matter. Either they endorse what the leadership was going to do anyway, or the leadership can find a way round the inconveniences when there is disagreement, or the policy is a dead duck because the party isn’t in power, no-one’s paying attention and it can be rewritten or quietly dropped come the manifesto. This time however, one particular policy debate really will matter.

That assumes that we’ll get to conference season: there is the possibility that a general election called during the September session of parliament, either at Boris Johnson’s prompting or after a Vote of No Confidence, does away with the conferences. Personally, I doubt there’ll be such a poll, for plenty of reasons, from the risks involved for all sides, to the desire to kick the can where no appealing option presents itself now but might do so later. But while noting the possibility that they might be called off, let’s assume they’re not.

In that case, we can assume that there will be an almighty battle over Labour’s Brexit policy when they meet in Brighton.

By that point, the Lib Dems will have already had their conference, with Jo Swinson making her debut as party leader. Will she – or will Lib Dem activists – seek to go beyond their current policy and move towards an outright Revoke stance? It would certainly be consistent with ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ and be more justifiable in the context of either a new election or a forced choice between that and No Deal, both of which are entirely plausible scenarios for the next three months, never mind the next twelve.

If they do, that puts even more pressure on Labour but either way, the current policy fudge may well not be sustainable. You might argue that the policy isn’t a fudge; that since last year’s conference, Labour has redefined it to a point where it’s in favour of a second referendum at some point in the future after a Brexit renegotiation in pursuit of unicorns of its own, where it might support (or not) what it had agreed. Personally, I’m not sold on the clarity there.

However, what that policy does mean is that Labour remains – in theory at least – a Leave party. It also means that under a Labour government, the second referendum would almost certainly not be for at least another two years, to give time for the talks to succeed or be seen to irrevocably fail, and for the legislation to set up the referendum to pass.

Are Labour members happy to go into the coming election as a notionally Leave party – especially if the Lib Dems have defined themselves as unambiguously Remain? The answer, both from the evidence of last year’s conference and from the breaking ranks of even key leadership figures like John McDonnell (who’s said that he’d back Remain in a second referendum, whatever the other option/s), is ‘no’.

That fudge came about, however, for a reason – and not just because Corbyn and key allies and lieutenants of his see opportunities in Brexit to pursue more socialist and interventionist policies they believe aren’t possible within the EU. The Labour Leave vote was a real part of their coalition in 2017 – close to a third of their total came from Leavers – but that’s declined by at least half since then. Adopting an outright Remain stance probably means writing off any chance of winning those voters back. Cultural resistance might prevent many of them switching to the Tories but other options exist, most obviously Farage’s Brexit Party and simply abstaining.

Looking at the shorter term though, there’s another implication; probably an even more important one. It’s clear from the letters that have been flying about this month that there’s a lot of disagreement among the opposition as to what they strategy should be, never mind the tactics that should come out of that strategy. As long as that division exists, the government stands a very good chance of delivering Brexit – almost certainly a No Deal Brexit, for lack of alternatives – on October 31.

The simple fact is that the government cannot be stopped unless virtually all opposition MPs and some Tory rebels unite either consistently behind a plan, or on one or two one-off but extremely important votes, such as Votes of (No) Confidence. At present, there isn’t that unity – and one big reason that there’s not that unity of action is that there’s not a unity of purpose. How can there be when Labour is in principle a Leave party?

Certainly, there’s a near-consensus on the opposition benches (and a little beyond) to stop No Deal but that’s not something that may be possible in isolation. While there’s undoubtedly a majority in the Commons opposed to No Deal in principle, is there still a majority opposed to it if it comes with Corbyn as PM, or if it means Revoke, for example? That’s far less clear.

As long as Labour is committed to holding its own renegotiation to leave – even if the chances are that most members would then campaign to Remain – that may well of itself be enough to prevent the Commons forces opposed to the government coalescing around a viable strategy. In other words, the fate of Brexit may rest on the machinations of backroom deals in Labour’s compositing committees.

David Herdson

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