Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 27 March 2018

Jeremy Corbyn cannot end Brexit

There is a cheap jibe that responds to the title of this piece by saying that Corbyn does not want to end Brexit. It is cheap because what Corbyn wants above all else is power. It is difficult to imagine this government surviving the collapse of Brexit, so ending Brexit is a means to that power. 

Another idea that some Remainers have is that if only Corbyn had campaigned against Brexit from the moment the vote to stay in the EU was lost, the Labour party could have somehow swung enough public opinion such that support for Brexit would by now be collapsing, and the resultant pressure on Remain-at-heart Tories would be so great that they would have been prepared to bring down their government just to stop Brexit.

To see why this makes little sense start with the 2017 election. May wanted this campaign to be about Brexit. She would have wanted nothing more than Corbyn to oblige by supporting Remain. The reason is straightforward. The Brexit vote divided the electorate on social conservative/liberal lines, with social conservative (anti-immigration) Labour voters supporting Leave. May knew that in a general election right wing social liberals would return to the Conservative fold, but left wing social conservatives could have been persuaded to vote Conservative, or at least not vote for an anti-Brexit Labour party. As a result of all this, the only choice Corbyn had before the election was to triangulate over Brexit, and it is only because of this that May did not get her landslide.

The only possibility is therefore if Corbyn had campaigned for Remain from the moment Remain lost the vote, and that as a result he had been sufficiently stronger in the polls by the following spring to dissuade May from holding an election. This seems very improbable for two reasons. First, immediately after the poll many who voted Remain believed the referendum result should be respected. Second, the Brexit vote has stayed pretty firm despite a fall in real wages. Once you recognise that, Corbyn had no choice but to triangulate over Brexit. That may have been an easy choice for him to make, but it was also the wise political choice. Had he not done so, May would have got her landslide in 2017. If Owen Smith had become Labour leader he might have made an anti-Brexit campaign work, but that is now irrelevant speculation.

That is why wishing Corbyn had not triangulated is in effect wishing May had got her landslide. Triangulation is why Corbyn has endorsed staying part of a customs union (although he could have done so sooner). As one of the reasons Labour gave for doing that is to avoid any infrastructure on the Irish border they have effectively endorsed staying within the EU’s Single Market for goods: the so-called Jersey option.

But triangulation is a dangerous game, particularly if your core support is not clear that is what you are doing. You have to convince socially conservative Leave voting Labour supporters that you will respect the vote, but at the same time convince your Remain voting core supporters that you will always push for a softer Brexit and take any realistic chance you are given to stop Brexit.

That was why sacking Owen Smith was foolish. The general belief of most Remainers is that they only way Brexit can be stopped is a referendum on the final deal. Sacking Smith because he advocates this just weakens Labour’s support among Remainers for the forthcoming local elections. Maintaining shadow cabinet discipline gains him nothing, while appearing to cast aside the hopes of many loyal Labour party members is a big deal. You do not win votes by shattering dreams.

However Remainers also need to realise another important political fact. The remaining slim chance that Brexit can be stopped requires Corbyn to remain passive. The only people who can stop Brexit happening will be the handful of Conservative MPs that have in the past voted against May’s wishes. They need to support moves that initiate the circumstances that lead to a popular vote on the final deal. Those Conservative MPs will only support such moves if they come ‘from parliament’, and not if they come from Jeremy Corbyn directly. Anything that comes from Corbyn is too toxic, as George Eaton notes here. All that Corbyn can do is leave it to others to do what they can to facilitate that moment, and then go with it if it comes. And he will go with it, because it increases the chances that the government will fall.

Whether that moment will come depends not so much on Corbyn or Labour, but more on the EU. So far the EU have allowed May to pretend that there is another solution to the Irish border question than the Jersey option. They have even gone as far as to set out what any free trade agreement (FTA) between the UK and EU would look like. They must know that the only way that FTA could ever happen is if there was a border in the Irish Sea, and they must also know by now that this is politically impossible for May. To go down the FTA route when May will have to concede something like the Jersey option for the whole of the UK is a waste of their time.

The EU therefore has two options. It could force the issue, and make May choose between the DUP and Liam Fox, or it could allow her to continue to fudge the issue until after we leave in 2019. Remainers should stop using Corbyn as a punchbag for their frustrations as time runs out to stop Brexit, and focus that frustration where it may belong, which is in the EU’s apparent willingness to indulge May’s desire to keep her party together.

Here is why the EU should not allow this charade to continue. Brexit is and will always be a right wing fantasy project. It is an attempt by a small group of newspaper owners and politicians with Little Englander fantasies to persuade the country that by leaving the EU the UK could become more wealthy in economic terms and more powerful in political terms. In reality precisely the opposite is true. In order to keep the fantasy in tact the Brexiters have tried to vilify experts, take power from parliament and intimidate judges, and have called any dissent they face unpatriotic. In other words the attempt to make this fantasy work has required its opponents to threaten almost every aspect of our parliamentary democracy.

If such tactics are seen to be successful they will only be repeated elsewhere. It is therefore not in the EU’s interest to allow May to keep her party in one piece. Brexit has to be seen as a failure, just as it is essential that Trump is seen as a failure. That has to mean that the Brexiters lose what matters to them most: political power. [1] It is not in the EU’s interests to allow May to appease her Brexiters. The possibility that by not indulging May the EU risks a No Deal outcome is now non-existent.

One thing above all else Remainers need to see. Even if Brexit cannot be prevented in 2019, it is essential that those who masterminded it suffer for the harm they will inflict on the UK. The only way they will suffer is if they lose power, and Conservative party members come to see the Brexiters as the source of their subsequent misfortune. To imagine, as some Remainers seem to do, that this can come about in first past the post UK by some kind of centrist revolution is as mad a fantasy as Brexit itself. [2] Whether they like it or not, the Brexit project will only be seen as a political failure if it leaves its leaders hollow, and the Conservatives out of power for a decade, and that can only happen one way.

[1] The idea that Brexit needs to be seen to fail in economic terms with the Conservatives in power is misguided. Economic failure will be gradual, and as with Brexit itself the government will deflect economic problems by finding scapegoats that play well with social conservatives, and by ramping up nationalism. As Simon Tilford argues, Brexit poses a real threat to pluralistic democracy. This is the strategy that Republicans have followed in the US, and right wing governments in Hungary and Poland are also following with some success.

[2] If centrists are uncomfortable with what Labour has become, think instead about what the Conservatives will become once May finally goes. The top three favourites to succeed may are all Brexiters, and for a good reason.


  1. Simon I think Corbyn was wrong not to campaign to stay in the EU before the vote. Since the vote he has largely played a canny political game.

    Corbyn was not the guy up at dawn foaming about the EU, working in Brussels lying for a living or a top hatted Lord Snooty figure dreaming of a world before the masses could vote. I agree it these people who have to pay the political price.
    If not the Tory part as currently constituted will wreck this country as a liberal democracy. The problem in the US is no one cared until it was too late to see what the Republicans had become.

    I agree the EU might now turn the screws (there is logic here), but I really really worry about what happens. If you play for high stakes and lose the consequences are shudderingly bad (as a Scot, our history is marked by this, Flodden, Culloden, etc).

    If in the confusion / chaos May falls, although desirable it does permit the possibility of Rees-Mogg or Gove or Johnson administration elected on the most base tub thumping nationalist drum whilst winking at outright scapegoating of foreigners.

    Corbyn is very beatable at the polls, a new Russian attack or some other galvanising event at the wrong time could tip the balance. I could live with his madder policies, but if he loses and we get our version of the Republican right, then as shown in North Carolina they can last a long time and do tremendous damage.

    I don't wish for the EU to end this fantasy (who does not want cake and eat it), I suspect they will but if they do, you need to see the very real dangers and be careful not to cheer it on. For some white middle class professionals like ourselves the price we deem worth paying for radical change is paid by the most vulnerable sections of society not by us.

    1. «Corbyn was wrong not to campaign to stay in the EU before the vote.»

      Well, the LibDems and SNP did campaign for "Remain" before june 2017 and much good it did to them: the LibDem gained a bit in England, the SNP lost a bit more in Scotland.
      By NOT campaigning for "Remain" the Labour party got nearly 3m ex-UKIP votes, the soft-exiters, while the Conservatives campaign as the English Nationalist Party got nearly 2m ex-UKIP voters, then hard-exiter ones. Given that there was a negligible switch from "Leave" to "Remain" parties, if Labour had campaigned for "Remain" they would have lost the soft-kipper votes to the Conservatives, or to abastentions, and also a good chunk of the 1/3 of Labour voters who voted "Leave".
      That would have delivered a 3m-4m gap (instead of less than 1m) between the Labour and Conservative vote, and 400 seats to the Conservatives, and destroyed Corbyn, which most likely was what T Blair and P Mandelson and their supporters wanted to achieve by advocating such a strategy of electoral suicide.

      «If not the Tory part as currently constituted will wreck this country as a liberal democracy. The problem in the US is no one cared until it was too late to see what the Republicans had become»

      The times they are a-changing, after the USSR collapse the strategy in most anglo-american culture countries is to go back to the 50s, the 1850s (or the 1750s for those like J Rees-Mogg). The anglo-american elites are fed up not just with socialdemocracy but with liberaldemocracy too, and want back the times where "the mob" did as they were told, or else. What the Republican party has become (except for Trump) is the very model that the elites of most anglo-american countries want to pursue. The model is a Pinochet-style economy and political system.

    2. He did campaign to stay in the EU and he achieved the same percentage of Labour's 2015 voters voting for Remain as the SNP did.

      The ABCs said this was a reason why he couldn't stay as leader. Yet nobody said Sturgeon's performance was poor and she should resign.

    3. I'm no fan of Sturgeon but she gave staying in the EU her all. Corbyn barely lifted a finger. (the vote I refer to is the referendum, not the GE, I think he has been canny and I agree with your analysis)

      The mistake is simple, BREXIT empowers the nationalist right. They are closer than ever to real power in the UK. As I say those who welcome change through disaster should be careful what they wish for. How much misery will the good end justify. If you are an settled immigrant getting deported in Trumps America ripped out of family, job etc. Ask yourself where do you stand on the Susan Sarandon view of Trump, good because its our turn next? Or were you with Andrew Sullivan who spotted Trump in the primaries and warned then he should be taken deadly seriously and stopped.

    4. Your claim that Corbyn did not campaign before the referendum has been thoroughly debunked. The issue was that he received little coverage as the MSM concentrated on the Big Beasts of the Tory party on each side of the debate.

  2. I expect the EU is avoiding pressuring May to avoid headlines along the lines of "Undemocratic Unelected Germano-Brussellian Eurocrats Punishing YOUR Country For Standing Up To It"; these will be almost inevitable whenever the negotiation collapses and will immediately become the right's scapegoat. Of course, these will come when the final deal comes anyway. Surveys that show that people are dissatisfied with the brexit process, but are still leave, suggest this is the crux of the issue; to an awful lot of people, we're just getting "the bad deal", since the good deal still exists out there in some world where the current cabinet isn't screwing it up.

  3. [Part 1 of 2]
    Unusual, but I disagree with much (lots to agree with as well). Thus, it's worth exploring the disagreements (for my own education, at least).

    Why does Corbyn need to triangulate and be passive? (I agree he probably does/did, disagree on why.)
    Because the moment he looses the unconditional support of Momentum, he loses his current seat (the PLP would be happy to seize any opportunity!). I am not aware of any leader within Momentum ever saying anything that suggests Brexit might be a bad idea. Lexit as an ideological delusion, if you ask me, but alas, my opinion counts for nothing - and you didn't ask! ;-)

    That's why he did fire Owen Smith, pleasing Momentum AND consolidating his own grip on the PLP. Must have been a no brainer.
    [Note: I agree that "what Corbyn wants above all else is power", nothing of what it does can be made to make sense if you think otherwise. Does not mean he wants power for the wrong reasons, but that's another topic altogether.]

    Being passive to allow Tory remainers to play ball: perhaps, but right now, Tory remainers are left with all the personal risks and very little upside, if any (besides preserving their own self-respect); so it seems to me that the current strategy is not optimal to encourage anti-Brexit stances from the Tory backbenchers. Why picking a sub-optimal strategy? See above, encouraging Tory remainers doesn't seem to be the primary objective.

    What the EU should do.
    Above all, it needs to remain unitary, which must be quite hard anyway. Secondarily, I'm sure they want to avoid being used as scapegoats for all the damage that Brexit will do. Thus, they need to be perceived (not only in the UK) as reasonable. Failing to do so means a Hard Brexit will happen and they will get all the blame. This opens the route for copycats and that's the big "No-No" from their perspective. Thus, I can't really understand what you think they should change (in detail) and why you think it could work.
    [Note: I agree the EU should not allow this charade to continue, I just don't know how to facilitate the change required for them to be able to do so.]
    [Part 1 of 2]

    1. While I appreciate some of your arguments, I have to say that this comment (which you use to justify the rationale for triangulation) "Because the moment he looses the unconditional support of Momentum, he loses his current seat (the PLP would be happy to seize any opportunity!)" doesn't reflect the way that the Labour Party and Momentum function.

      The Momentum membership is tiny compared to Labour (around 20k vs 600k). It clearly has more influence than the left side of the party has for a long time, but as can be seen from the leadership election outcomes, Corbyn (and, presumably, therefore also his left wing policies) are supported by far greater numbers than are in Momentum... and following the recent changes on the NEC, the broader left wing has greater control over the party apparatus than it did before, rendering Momentum in many ways obsolete...

      Equally, typically, sitting MPs in Labour automatically get the choice to maintain their seats (hence the massive uproar over the possibility that Momentum might try to deselect the more Blairite members of the PLP - which never actually happened).

      Besides, even if Corbyn did lose the "unconditional support of Momentum", it seems almost utterly implausible that the institution set up explicitly to support Corbyn and his policies would suddenly decide that rather than supporting him, they would try to oust him not just from his role as leader (that they were instrumental in getting him into), but also his seat in Parliament - something they haven't pushed for across any of the right wing MPs.

      None of that changes the reality that Corbyn's domestic policies are far more popular with the Labour membership and voters than his Brexit policies, and it seems reasonable to think that at some stage, he will push the Labour MPs to vote against specific key Brexit bills, if only because it makes a Labour government in the short term much more likely.

  4. [Part 2 of 2]
    Finally, "triangulation is a dangerous game". Indeed. Much more than you seem to appreciate, and certainly more than Corbyn realises. The point is: once you commit to certain rhetorical positions and enact policy on this basis, you cannot backpedal on the rhetoric. This is true for all politicians, but for Corbyn in particular. The moment he offers anyone the chance to expose him as a hypocrite, the sharks from right AND centre will all go for the killer blow.

    So, most likely scenarios:
    1. Public mood doesn't change much, the ills of Brexit are blamed on the unaccountable EU bureaucrats. May replaced by a hard brexiteer, Labour remains in opposition. Corbyn may or may not be replaced at the head of Labour, but will not become PM because Brexiteer's plan A worked.
    2. Public mood does change, Brexit is recognised for what it is: a *bad idea*. May loses her place, a GE happens. Corbyn can try to ride the new wave, but will be crippled. How can he start saying stuff like "FOM is not a bad idea, after all"? He already can't do it, not without being eaten alive by opponents and MSM (the hypocrisy card will become more decisive as time passes).
    In this scenario, if he doesn't change his tune *really quickly* (I don't think he will), he'll be unable to ride the wave. Only hope would be that he gets replaced by a remainer, who will be most likely be much closer to neo-liberalism than Corbyn (not what I can honestly hope-for).

    Result: in both cases, Corbyn does not get what he wants. I've been saying he is enacting suicidal strategies for quite a while now, I've been wrong on the speed of such suicide (it's in ultra-slow motion, it seems), but I can't change my mind on the final outcome.

    [Full argument is here, it seems I did not write convincingly, based on (lack of) feedback.]

    If you can prove me wrong, I would be very grateful - I can readily admit that I do hope I'm wrong.
    I do have an alternative route to propose, will write it down if asked. Thanks for the interesting perspectives, I really appreciate the chance to explore different and well informed views.
    [Part 2 of 2]

  5. Unfortunately, the only thing centrists hate more than the far right is the left. I've often heard about how "Jeremy Corbyn doesn't want to win", but the ironic truth of it is that neoliberals don't seem to mind losing so long as progressive economics doesn't either.

  6. The EU must know that allowing the UK to leave in 2019 without the Tories having been forced beforehand to choose between making their own trade deals or not is a disaster for the Remainers.

  7. Hi Simon, Long time fan, with just a few comments, from the point of view of someone from Ireland, staring in horror at the Psychotic Break that the UK body Politic seems to be suffering.

    The thing from the point of view of someone living in the EU-27, is that nothing else needs to happen for everyone to suddenly go cold on the idea of leaving the EU. That point has already been absorbed. The Day after the Referendum Most Newspaper headlines across europe were "Britain leaves EU, how much of the city of london can we grab". And then your currency collapsed.

    The UK economy is seen as a giant pinata that is about to shower us all in the EU single market dependent jobs. We get that you're not going to be able to export services if you leave the single market, so we all want your stuff to move to our countries.

    but the other thing is that the irish minister for finance went on the tv in January 2017 and warned us that we needed to prepare for a future where we were going to be doing considerably less trade with the UK, and need to reorientate our domestic industry away from the UK to mainland europe and beyond. Given the Economic history of our two countries, since the Cromwellian plantation/genocide, I felt that announcement deserved a lot more attention. Anyway, Even we're preparing to cut you off like a dead limb, even though in many important economic respects we're conjoined twin economies.

    Also watching the UK govt trying to deal with Brexit is another constant reminder that this is not a good idea. the three people you are sending to negotiate with the outside world are Twice fired liar Boris Johnson, Disgraced former defence miniser Liam Fox, and David Davies who seems to know nothing about anything. And as for Theresa May? Britain is cutting a particularly sorry figure at the moment.

    We Already know that Brexit was a terrible Idea, and we're kind of puzzled that people in the UK haven't spotted this yet. But we have access to your media and we listen to your politicians, and we understand the depth of the lunacy you have to live with on a daily basis.

    As for the EU driving a wedge into the tories over the Northern irish border. The thing is that from our perspective, this is already done. People in the UK just don't realise it yet. the UK has already agreed to either a border in the irish sea, or for the whole of the UK to remain at least within the customs union. The EU keeps saying this, but no-one in the UK seems to be listening.

    This is only going to become an issue at the next discussions, when the EU puts into cold hard words precisely what that december promise means. And the UK Govt is going to have to finally admit that this is what they've signed up to.

    The UK govt is desperately trying to pretend that this hasn't already happened, but this is what they agreed in December, and when David Davies said that it wasn't Binding, they dragged him back in by the hair to make it very clear that this was binding.

    If the UK tries to walk back on this commitment, or screw over the Irish Govt over the Good Friday Agreement, I'm afraid they're going to learn what happens to third countries, who break an international agreement with an EU member state.

    There is only so much that the EU can do, because the UK body politic simply isn't listening to them. There has never been a widespread awareness in the UK that the Withdrawal section isn't really up for negotiation as such, and was going to be conducted on the EU's terms. The Agreement reached in december looks an awful lot like what the EU outlined at the first EU council meeting after Brexit. The UK govt was simply wasting time trying to pretend that they could get anything else.

    1. Northern Irishman and Remain voter here. Two paragraphs of the joint report created a seeming contradiction.

      Namely that the UK will avoid a "hard border" with the Republic but also maintain for NI the same "unfettered access" to GB as part of the UK's own "internal market".

      The UK govt would not "screw the Irish Govt over the Good Friday Agreement" by having a hard border. You have not read and understood the GFA.

      Tariffs, trade, international relations are excluded from the cross-border North-South cooperation in Strand Two. North-South cooperation can only cover matters devolved to NI. So the UK reserves the right to have a hard border.

      There is also no provision for free movement of goods or people in the GFA, perhaps some people think so because there is a right to British, Irish or dual citizenship.

      Just as people can currently have their identity checked to see if they're entitled to cross the border under the Common Travel Area, or have their vehicles checked in case they are smuggling fuel or tobacco, the UK will be allowed to carry out customs checks. And British citizens flying from NI to GB are not exempt from identity checks, X-rays and metal detectors.

      And if we leave the customs union and single market, the Republic would be compelled to enforce customs to comply with EU law. Customs declarations would be done electronically as they are for non-EU goods and the Republic is already introducing a (scalable) system for this, 6-8% would need to be diverted to a centre about 15km from the border.

      Only 6000 lorries cross the border per day, half of them are Belfast-Dublin.

      Even a hard border is technically feasible with enough time to prepare, and is within the UK's rights under the GFA. Not to mention its rights under Lisbon which the Republic ratified.

    2. Sadly, as an EU citizen living in the UK, I have to agree with you.

      Simon's excellent point about the EU being capable of forcing the Irish issue and not having done that yet is IMO due to the EU having already written off the UK as a potential member state.

      The xenophobic nationalism displayed by the current government (which is what it looks like from the rest of Western Europe, especially Germany) makes it an unattractive partner, and the political mess in this country has already been used as a cautionary tale by traditional parties in several Western European elections: no need for the EU to don anything.

  8. "social conservative (anti-immigration) Labour voters supporting Leave"

    No. If someone wants to reduce immigration because they think it is bad for their wages (rightly or wrongly) then they are not being socially conservative.

    How many more times?

    "The possibility that by not indulging May the EU risks a No Deal outcome is now non-existent."

    "the opposite is true". Sorry, but that FT article just goes to show that as Krugman put it that when you have been banging your head on the wall it feels good when you stop. Growth accelerated in the UK when Osborne paused austerity. Productivity is gonna grow on the continent as growth resumes. This is quite different from the proposition that leaving the EU will leave the UK out of future EU productivity growth that we would obtain via trade with them.

    Coutts and Gudgin found only a weak relationship between productivity and trade and none between rich countries when using 1980-2016 data. The Treasury used 23+ year old data mostly for emerging countries when they made their forecast. (Slides 29-34)

    Brexit is a right-wing fantasy project among the Tory and UKIP Brexiters. It is not a right-wing project among Lexiters and various other Leavers. The Eurozone is a right-wing fantasy project.

    A No Deal outcome is automatic if no deal is signed before the Article 50 deadline. Time is running out. But Britain has more to lose from this outcome than the EU does.

    1. '"social conservative (anti-immigration) Labour voters supporting Leave"

      No. If someone wants to reduce immigration because they think it is bad for their wages (rightly or wrongly) then they are not being socially conservative.

      How many more times?'

      Yes, they are. Being against immigration, for whatever reason, is socially conservative, in as much as being pro-fully open borders with no restrictions is socially liberal. Indeed, the very nature of (small-c) conservatism is that of seeking to retain the socioeconomic structure of society (including the demographic makeup).

      If the justification for that anti-immigration position is a concern over wages (the evidence suggests wrongly), they are using an economically left position supporting a socially conservative policy.

      Just because you don't want to recognise the position as socially conservative doesn't change the reality...

    2. "No. If someone wants to reduce immigration because they think it is bad for their wages (rightly or wrongly) then they are not being socially conservative."

      Good grief; first we can't say it's racist, then we can't call it xenophobic, now it's not even socially conservative, despite all those things being generally true. Presumably we'll be in the position of calling it anything less than laissez faire liberalism is a slur.

  9. Other bloggers (David Allen Green) have written about how a second referendum is impossible for legislative reasons. I will defer to their expertise.

    A second referendum could also backfire spectaculaly. Especially if portrayed as "elites" trying to undo the last one. Best forget it I'd say

    Remainers must consider there are degrees of badness. May's government wobbling towards a "jersey" sifs brexit is one thing, a hard crash out followed by a Corbyn led socialist govt, giving itself emergency economic powers, is a far more terrifying prospect.

    I think the EU seeks to support May as much as possible. A collapse of govt in the UK would only bring chaos in the short term. Except for one exception.

    Let's suppose BoJo supported Leave, not out of a strong selfless motivation, but instead to fulfill his ambition of being PM. Imagine that.
    Friends that were lucky enough to go to Oxford tell me he had a real knack for changing sides during a debate. Now is the time for such a talent.

    Clown that he is, he is the only politician that could conceivably change the direction of the tory ship.

  10. It may have escaped your attention, but Corbyn is a long-standing eurosceptic. He's not going to try to stop Brexit, because his political programme conflicts with Single Market rules.

    Everybody knows that the Tory-DUP deal runs out shortly after Brexit day, and everybody knows that May won't be allowed to fight the next election. It is almost certain that May will stand down/be defeated shortly after Brexit happens. To command a majority the next Tory leader has to be able to satisfy the DUP, the ERG and Remainer Tories. That would require some skill. And so that is the time when Corbyn might try to press for a general election.

    Oh, and it's 2018 and you're relying on projections about productivity to make your argument? Good grief.

  11. It seems to me very impressive that our blogger has now a mostly reasonable, mostly realistic view of the politics around "Leave", so here are some smaller notes, some in agreement, some in disagreement.

    «Another idea that some Remainers have is that if only Corbyn had campaigned against Brexit from the moment the vote to stay in the EU was lost, the Labour party could have somehow swung enough public opinion such that support for Brexit would by now be collapsing, and the resultant pressure on Remain-at-heart Tories would be so great»

    The LibDems did that following exactly T Blair's strategy, they are far nearer politically to the Conservatives than Labour, and as a result they won 400 seats in June 2017 by aggregating the votes of tory and labour centrist and "Remain"ers in a single issue election. OBVIOUSLY :-).

    «The Brexit vote divided the electorate on social conservative/liberal lines,»

    Note just: it was I think a 3-way split, where "Leave" voters were mostly imperial nostalgic (and socially conservative) tory and labour voters, left-behind labour voters who wanted to get rid/vote against D Cameron and T Blair, and a small number of people who voted "Leave" on the merits, that is against political union.

    «the only choice Corbyn had before the election was to triangulate over Brexit, it is only because of this that May did not get her landslide.»

    But she did get her landslide: 42% of the vote and over 13 million voters is a huge landslide of an extra 2m votes, especially as in recent decades abstentions have grown.
    She did not get a 400 seat majority because J Corbyn also got a landslide, to 40% and nearly 13m votes, with more than 3m votes gained on 2015.
    What happened is that 40% of UKIP voters switched to the Conservatives and 60% switched to Labour.

    «That was why sacking Owen Smith was foolish. The general belief of most Remainers is that they only way Brexit can be stopped is a referendum on the final deal.»

    But most (according to polls around 70-80%) of "Remain"ers don't demand to stop exit, that's pretty obvious. Most "Leave"rs are pretty obsessive about it, most "Remain"ers are not, they consider losing membership merely a significant mistake, but "Leave"rs consider membership an intolerable national humiliation.

    The "Remain"ers who cannot abide by exit voted in June 2017 for the LibDems (or the SNP in Scotland, and the SNP vote shrank while the Conservative vote rose in the nation), and indeed the LibDem vote grew by half a million.

    «Even if Brexit cannot be prevented in 2019, it is essential that those who masterminded it suffer for the harm they will inflict on the UK.»

    The only thing that really matters for many UK voters, especially tory ones, is not the fate of their leaders, but house prices. if there is a harsh and long property crash they will curse exit, otherwise they won't give a damn.

    «To imagine, as some Remainers seem to do, that this can come about in first past the post UK by some kind of centrist revolution is as mad a fantasy»

    The goal of the "centrists" is solely to punish Labour by splitting the Labour vote and thus deny it, under FPTP, the possibility of a majority of seats, the goal is about domestic politics, not EU politics: they want to make sure that the socialdemocratic majority of Labour understand that if they don't obey their whig minority, they are going to be wrecked just like the SDP wrecked the Labour vote in 1983 and 1987.

    1. "But most (according to polls around 70-80%) of "Remain"ers don't demand to stop exit, that's pretty obvious. Most "Leave"rs are pretty obsessive about it, most "Remain"ers are not, they consider losing membership merely a significant mistake, but "Leave"rs consider membership an intolerable national humiliation."

      All polls I've seen that look at the whole group of Leavers and Remainers show Remainers as consistently considering Brexit as more important than Leavers. For example, the Ashcroft polls after the result showed that 7/10 leavers thought it wasn't very important (, or here from the British Election Survey that found across all voter types, remainers though Brexit was more important than leavers (

      Your impression is probably based on what I consider to be the "small, vocal minority" of leavers who, for whatever reason, consider EU membership to be against the national interest. These are likely to represent the 10%-or-less who thought that EU membership was the most important issue in the decade before the referendum became a real possibility (p4 here -

  12. As to EU attitudes, I have a wider disagreement with our blogger:

    «focus that frustration where it may belong, which is in the EU’s apparent willingness to indulge May’s desire to keep her party together.»

    The EU are obviously no interest in fighting to the last for "Remain". For the them exit is a done deal, and a distraction.
    UK exit is not a political issue in 26 of the 27 EU members, and
    even in Eire it is not an electoral issue.
    Also you may underestimate how offended the french elites have been by the english threats in the Lancaster House speech (which T may has since reversed ineffectually) and how vividly they remember De Gaulle's reasons for "non". The EU27 in general have no intention to keep a deeply split member within the EU.
    Because they understand very well that an attempt to undo the June 2016 referendum if successful won't be 80% for "Remain", but another 52% at best, and that will not resolve the issue.

    The best outcomes for the EU27 are: WTO terms exit followed by 10-20 years in the wilderness followed by asking for membership with an 80% majority, or Norway terms exit (EFTA+EEA) followed by 10-20 year of BINO followed by asking for membership with an 80% majority.

    «Here is why the EU should not allow this charade to continue. Brexit is and will always be a right wing fantasy project.»

    Why should they interfere in the internal politics of a third-party country, and thus further excite the hatred and resentment of "Leave"rs and eurosceptics everywhere? What's *their* profit?

    «If such tactics are seen to be successful they will only be repeated elsewhere.»

    That's a completely different issue for the UK and other countries, and such tactics have anyhow *already* proven to be successful.

    «Brexit has to be seen as a failure»

    In due time, the EU27 seem to have a "let them stew in their own juices for 10-20 years" attitude to the UK.

    1. Hi I'm that annoyed NI Remainer again.

      I don't think you're right when you say Brexit isn't an electoral issue in the Republic.

      For various reasons Sinn Féin is polling at 15-20% these days. So far Brexit's impact on the south is a "phony war" but depending on how hard it is, and how big a shock to the southern economy it causes, it will become an electoral issue.

      That's why Varadkar dishonestly implies the Good Friday Agreement has something to do with the border, because he knows Ireland could lose a ton of exports which use GB as a land bridge to continental Europe and agricultural exports to GB overnight if it doesn't get a suitable deal.

  13. > "May knew that in a general election right wing social liberals would return to the Conservative fold..."

    I think this is the basic error, she was wrong and there was a chance at that point. The racist left who pushed Brexit through were never going to switch to the tories, the right wing remainers were a much more flexible group and much more likely to switch had they had something they could switch to.

    The problem with Corbyn is that he's unelectable, the centre-right cannot vote for him because he's extreme enough that it would do them actual harm. Who would vote for a kick in the nuts?

    1. «The problem with Corbyn is that he's unelectable, the centre-right cannot vote for him because he's extreme enough that it would do them actual harm. Who would vote for a kick in the nuts?»

      Here "centre right" is an euphemism for "southern property owners", and "extreme enough" means that his policies are pro-renter, pro-first-time-buyer, pro-northern-owner-occupier.

      The vast majority of the southern affluent property owners, whether occupiers or landlords, will never vote other than the for the Conservatives. They won't even vote for the LibDems. The most they could bring themselves to do was to abstain from voting Conservative when New Labour, a “quasi-Conservative” clone of the Conservatives, kept pushing up house prices.

      So the pro-renter, pro-first-time-buyer, pro-northern-owner-occupier policies of Labour under J Corbyn are not going to lose them the votes of the vast majority of the "centre right".

  14. As always there is a lot of high-quality thought in your post. However, I think there is a glaring weak point at the end.

    People who went along with Brexit, or even support hard Brexit as the Labour leadership is doing, will be in no position to punish "those who masterminded" Brexit. There isn't going to be a passionate wave rising up to vote for people who, if you study them under a microscope, can be seen to be not the primary culprits behind the disaster.

  15. Any attempt at stopping brexit (a nationalist delirium) has to be tried.

  16. The EU does not seem to be pressing the UK too hard to reconsider Brexit. It seems to want the UK to get on with it. In its mind it has bigger things to get on with. For one thing they want a way to achieve some sort of fiscal union to save the Euro. In many ways this will be easier with Britain out. Britain was the country that pushed for rapid Eastward expansion in a series of important events during the 1990s, and this greatly derailed movement towards tighter convergence among the former members. Ironically Britain has now left the EU to deal with an unwieldy mess. Not only was it the logistics of achieving agreement among so many members - rapid expansion also put competitive pressures on the older, less industrialised (Southern) periphery.

    The answer for the EU is a two speed Europe. I expect Germany and France to start pushing for this soon.


  17. I think JC almost certainly has to go along with 'lets get the best deal possible'. However, he could have been making the point that this will inevitably involve a trade off, much more forcefully. So far he seems to be indulging the view that we can have our cake and eat it, that there can be a deal which honours the referendum result and has no cost at all.

    I think the public is starting to realise that we are most definitely not going to get the most amazing deal ever. Him making a pitch for greater realism could long term both undermine the naive optimism that has driven Brexit, and earn him browning points for being honest with the UK electorate.

  18. Great post—all of that analysis appears sound to me. The reason why right-wing social liberals will always vote Tory, no matter what, needs to be spelled out a little I feel.

    First of all, the Tories stand for a status quo in wealth and housing/property, and it's going to be hard to convince people to vote against their short-term financial interests.

    Second, the actual motivations of social liberalism are twofold. On one hand there is genuine compassion for other human beings; on the other there is a desire to *convince others* that you are compassionate, so as to win friends and get ahead socially.

    It's easy to see that the "influence" motivation for social liberalism will be disproportionately abundant in the socially liberal Tory voters. Those preoccupied with pecuniary self-interest will also disproportionately gravitate toward adopting strategies for influencing others.

  19. Although we were told that the decision to hold the general election in June 2017 was made in April 2017 we may have been misled about the true timing of events.

    How about this timeline?

    Shortly after the Referendum in June 2016 the Conservatives only led Labour by around 3% in the polls, despite them having chosen the “unelectable” Corbyn in September 2015. When Theresa May became Conservative leader in July 2017, the lead over Labour began to grow and by December 2016 it was around the 13% mark.

    The Conservatives now begin to think that a general election in the nice weather of June 2017 will give them, for the first time in 30 years, the 100+ majority that they last had in the days of Margaret Thatcher.

    With the lead over Labour still increasing, preparations begin in the New Year. The Conservatives think they have waited long enough after the election of Corbyn so they can’t be accused of opportunism. Friendly newspapers are informed of the decision so that they can begin storing anti-Corbyn articles.

    Triggering Article 50 is then carefully timed to be in March 2017 for two reasons, despite critics of this decision saying it was done too early—before any real planning of the exit process had been done. (But then it's main purpose has only a little to do with Brexit but a lot to do with winning a June election with a massive majority.)

    The first reason: the UK will leave the EU before the European Parliament elections of May 2019 which means there will be no need to hold these elections. Elections mean campaigns, and campaigns might raise questions about why the UK is leaving the EU. They might focus the mind of the electorate away from the impression that the UK’s large anti-EU press wants to create.

    The second reason for triggering Article 50 means that UKIP supporters now have concrete evidence that the Conservatives are committed to leaving the EU. So that the large number of Conservative voters who drifted off to UKIP can now drift back, safe in the knowledge that the first step to leaving the EU has been taken.

    The next step is to call the general election. The decision to call it was, we were told, made solely by Theresa May on a walking holiday in Wales in April 2017….

    First indications are good. The announcement of the decision causes the Conservatives to jump about 3% in the polls and UKIP support to fall by the same number.

    The local elections in May 2017 result in a thumping Conservative victory—but then younger voters, who are more likely to vote Labour, rarely bother to turn out for local elections.

    It went slightly downhill for the Conservatives from then on.

    1. Typo: May became PM in July 2016, not 2017.

  20. If Brexit is such a surefire disaster, why does the EU have to "ensure it fails"?

    1. It doesn't have to ensure it fails but it does have to avoid giving the UK a deal that Norway, Canada, Switzerland etc etc all see as ridiculously generous. Indeed any deal that undermines the reason for being in the club - all the perks and none of the obligations.

  21. I can see why Corbyn may need to triangulate, I would like to see him do it, but I can't see any triangulation at all. Instead he has supported the full hard Brexit package, though pulled back slightly with a proposal for a currency union (on terms that would not be possible). Triangulation would mean proposing a compromise package between leave and remain, which could only really be EEA membership. Instead he has relied on meaningless slogans - 'jobs first Brexit' - to oppose, while not proposing any realistic alternative.

    1. While I tend to agree with you, to an extent, I think the "constructive ambiguity" is the triangulation. McDonnell or Starmer (or both?) recently made it clear that Labour will not vote for any deal that does not meet the 6 tests, including delivering the "exact same benefits" as membership of the Single Market and Customs Union.

      Given it is, at this point, if not a couple of years ago, very obvious that there is a trade off between increased sovereignty and reduced trade integration benefits, it seems at least plausible that the entire strategy is to let the government fail on its own terms and, when that happens, use Labour's stated policy to reject the deal and topple the government before we leave.

      It's hard to know what would happen in that situation, but given the numbers in parliament, it's realistic to think that with Labour voting against the deal, either a GE or referendum on the terms (or both) may become a political necessity to move forward from the situation.

  22. There seem to be two unjustified assumptions in these discussions.
    First is that the EU has a long-term future and the inherent contradictions of the Euro can be resolved. Greece was supposed to have recovered by now but is still a disaster. Italian banks are allowed ridiculous levels of non-performing loans. Spanish banks are collapsing. The only hope is for Germany to undertake massive fiscal transfers as would happen in an optimal currency union like the USA but that seems impossible.
    The second is that England has a future in the world after the end of North Sea oil. Does England (and Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland) have the export capacity to make up for the increasing costs of energy imports? To pay for the imported food which makes up more than half its consumption? What does the world want to buy from England?
    My guess is that the EU will implode or split during the next major downturn. With President Trump at the wheel can a ditch be far ahead?
    The same downturn will leave England a hollow shell with anyone capable of finding work elsewhere gone and a dramatically lower standard of living for those who remain. Scotland may go its own way and Northern Ireland unite with the rest of Ireland but it will not matter. The whole Brexit fiasco will appear as a minor interlude hastening an inevitable collapse.
    As with Global Warming, I desperately hope I am wrong but I would not like to be in England or southern Europe over the next few years.


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