May and Corbyn eye off a deal

I was going to post on the local elections in Britain, held last Thursday, but Adrian Beaumont at the Poll Bludger has saved me the trouble – you can go and read his summary.

Local elections are just local, and only cover part of the country each year, on a four-year cycle; they’re intrinsically no big deal. But for a variety of reasons commentators have made a habit of taking them as a guide to national politics, and to a large extent the perception becomes the reality.

That’s probably more than usually the case this time, since British politics is in continuing turmoil over the prospective exit from the European Union, so any straws in the wind are going to be clutched at. There are also elections to the European parliament coming up later this month (unless, per impossible, a Brexit plan should be approved before then), and inevitably the local polls are being taken as a guide to them as well.

But it’s not just the large difference in the ostensible point of the elections that makes this a dubious strategy. There’s also the fact that there are two new entrants whose performance will be critical to the European elections, but who did not stand last week.

One is the pro-European splitters from Labour, originally known as the Independent Group, but now calling themselves “Change UK” (a sort of play on words with the first name of their spokesman, Chuka Umunna). The other is the Brexit Party, led by former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, after he split from UKIP following its turn to the extreme right.

No surprise, of course, that attitudes to Brexit will be the fundamental issue in the European parliament election. But extracting a moral about that from the local elections is difficult, to say the least.

For what it’s worth, the parties that did well locally were pro-European: the Liberal Democrats, who doubled their representation, picking up 704 seats, and the Greens, who more than trebled theirs, with a gain of 194. The Conservatives were the big losers, dropping 1,330 seats. Labour went backwards slightly, losing 84, and UKIP was almost wiped out, going from 176 seats to just 31.

The BBC projects that in national terms, that would equate to Conservatives and Labour polling equal on 28% each, with Lib Dems not far behind on 19%.

What looks like a pro-“remain” swing, however, seems to have led to renewed pressure within both major parties to come to an agreement on Brexit, so as to somehow get it out of the way. As Ian Dunt put it:

This led to the extraordinary sight this morning of political commentators looking at a screen showing the Tories down, Labour down, Ukip down, and the Greens and Lib Dems up – before promptly coming to the conclusion that voters were sending a message to get Brexit over with. The level of cognitive dissonance is quite remarkable.

Prime minister Theresa May and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, if left to their own devices, may well be able to agree on a Brexit plan that would involve permanent membership of the customs union. But the political dynamics that argue against it are as strong as ever.

The Tory leadership can’t agree to a customs union without splitting the party. In that case they will need Labour votes – not just a few Labour votes, but the large bulk of the Labour caucus – to get the plan through parliament. But the Labour leadership can’t provide the votes to implement Brexit without splitting their party.

Each wants one of these things to happen without the other: each wants its rival to split while itself remaining intact. The trouble is, it’s hard to see how any Brexit can be agreed without both happening. (Although the converse is not true: even a Brexit deal that splits both parties may still fail to win a majority in the Commons.)

There is one way Corbyn could avoid a Labour split, and that would be to insist on a confirmatory referendum as part of the deal. If May is going to split the Conservative Party anyway by agreeing to the customs union, it’s just possible that she would feel she had little to lose by going the extra step and accepting a referendum.

But that would probably just postpone the split in Labour. Corbyn might hold the party together in parliament on the basis of customs union plus referendum, but its two halves would then go different ways in the referendum campaign.

Faced with these unpalatable options, the result is continued gridlock, while the parties wait for 23 May to see what the European elections may bring.

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