Who lost Brexit?

Recriminations continue in relation to the British Labour Party’s larger-than-expected loss in last week’s election. A variety of factors can be blamed, but most commentators choose from a shortlist of three: Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, and realignment.

The three, of course, are not mutually exclusive. The first, and to some extent the second, may be seen as just a manifestation of the third. Emphasising either the first or the third may be a way of exonerating Corbyn, or may be used as further evidence of how incompetent he was. Enemies of Corbyn may blame him particularly for his handling of Brexit, or may ignore that factor. And so on.

Nonetheless, the three-way classification is a useful one, and in due course I want to get around to considering all three. Today, the first: Brexit.

Start with Owen Jones in yesterday’s Guardian:

The decisive failure – yes, with hindsight – was that the Labour leadership did not use the political capital of the 2017 election to make a principled case for a Norway-style soft Brexit, and definitively rule out any future referendum. If that message had been held with stubborn discipline, a perception of weakness and dithering would have never set in. Whether it was truly politically feasible – and whether Labour’s membership could have worn it – is another question.

There’s at least one clear truth there: that a major part of Labour’s problem was the “perception of weakness and dithering” and that a firm position on Brexit – any firm position – could have helped. I suspect Jones is also right to say that a Norway-style soft Brexit was the position most capable of forming the basis for a Labour consensus.

But there are two problems, and they’re big problems.* The first is that the Norway option just didn’t make a great deal of sense. If the customs union and the single market were so great, why leave the European Union in the first place? What, exactly, was going to be gained by leaving the EU that did not also require leaving the customs union and the single market?

It looked a lot like Britain being still bound to follow the EU’s rules (and having to help pay for them) while losing its say in how they were made. Nor did it help that Norway’s prime minister was making exactly that point.

The compromise position may well have ended up pleasing no-one. There would have been “leave” supporters who thought “If we’re not going to leave properly, why bother?”, and “remain” supporters who thought “If we’re going to leave anyway, let’s at least make a clean break.” And that confusion makes it hard to justify Jones’s demand that it be accompanied by “definitively rul[ing] out any future referendum.”

The second problem is that a consistent soft Brexit position from Labour would not have changed the political dynamic of the last two years. Although Corbyn dithered, for most of the time Labour’s position was pretty close to the Norway option anyway, and it didn’t help.

Recall why Brexit wasn’t agreed on a year ago: it’s because Theresa May’s deal, an uneasy compromise between hard and soft Brexit, was rejected by a large fraction of her own party. A few thought it was too “hard”, but most of those who crossed the floor were objecting that it was not hard enough.

If Labour had been presenting a consistent, unified position, then it would have been possible in principle for May to reach agreement with it and pass a modified version of her deal with Labour votes. But that doesn’t mean that would have happened.

On the contrary, May invariably gave the impression that she put a higher priority on party unity than on resolving Brexit, and that (partly for that reason) she had a strong aversion to negotiating with Corbyn at all. And while Corbyn probably could have made her task a little easier, it’s hard to see how that would have made much difference.

At some point during this year, the dynamic around an early election started to shift. As the saga dragged on and on, public opinion moved away from its initial desire to punish the Conservatives for their incompetence and disunity, and on to a simple wish to get Brexit over with. That was helped by the advent of Boris Johnson, a much better communicator than either May or Corbyn (admittedly a low bar).

From Labour’s point of view, it would have been tactically better for Brexit to happen first, in as messy a fashion as possible, before an election was called. But regardless of what one thinks of the morality of that approach, the balance of forces in the House of Commons for most of the year just didn’t permit it.

Only when Johnson had united most of the Conservatives behind his version of Brexit did it become imaginable that it could pass without Labour support – until then, Labour would have had to share the blame for the problems Brexit caused. And once Johnson had the upper hand, he (not coincidentally) wanted an early election himself.

This now all seems like ancient history, although in fact it’s only two months ago. But it’s important, because although Brexit will now definitely happen, the underlying issues will not go away: in both a narrow sense, in that debates over the future relationship with Europe will continue, and in the broader sense that those debates reflect some fundamental cultural divisions that Labour somehow has to deal with.

Jones thinks that Labour has to rebuild “without abandoning the progressive social values that are articles of faith to its young supporters,” while at the same time it “must decisively rule out the prospect of rejoining the EU in its current form ever again.” How he proposes to square that particular circle, we are not told.


* A third problem is that the “political capital of the 2017 election” wasn’t nearly as great as Jones and others seem to think, but that’s a topic for next time.


5 thoughts on “Who lost Brexit?

  1. Norway is a member of the European Union’s single market but not of its customs union. It remains a member of the European Free Trade Association (to which the UK used to belong), which has entered free trade agreements with some other non-EU European countries. Since Norway can avoid political integration with the EU, the Norway option was a potential point of compromise between Leavers and Remainers, but neither side wanted to pursue it.


    1. Yes, that’s true, and I think there was a period where if both major parties had had more competent and public-spirited leaders, it was a possible outcome. But it needed both of them on board, and even then I think there’s a risk it would have left nearly everyone dissatisfied.


      1. It’s worth mentioning that under the UK-EU withdrawal agreement Northern Ireland remains in the EU’s single market (officially in order to preserve the soft Irish border required by the Belfast Agreement of 1998 even though modern technology could have kept it soft even if Northern Ireland had left the single market along with the rest of the UK). In addition, although NI leaves the EU’s customs union along with the rest of the UK, some kind of customs barrierr between Great Britain and NI is likely to be imposed to deal with goods imported into NI that might then ‘leak’ across the soft border with the Irish republic (which is in the EU). This poses a threat to the long-term status of NI within the UK because over time Great Britain’s economic regulations will diverge from those of the EU’s single market (how fast depends on the kind of trade deal the UK and the EU negotiate) while NI’s regulations remains fully aligned with those of the EU a la Norway. But remember: in the 2016 Brexit referendum a majority of voters in NI opted for Remain. As well, an opinion poll found that a majority of Conservative-voting Leavers in Great Britain were willing to see NI ‘left behind’ if that was necessary to secure Brexit. Many unionists in NI believe that the UK-EU withdrawal agreement has brought the prospect of a united Ireland closer.


      2. Thanks Michael! Yes, I agree. Scotland gets more attention, but I think the politics of Northern Ireland and its relationship with the union are going to be really fascinating over the next couple of years. The big difference is that if NI votes to join the republic, it will rejoin the EU automatically – it won’t have to go thru any new approval process the way Scotland would.


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