If Labour are serious about calling a general election, they first need to back a final vote on the Brexit deal
Another vote would put Labour alongside progressive forces, as well as the growing voices in the UK economy and civil society who are now seriously worried about Brexit
Labour’s, or more specifically Emily Thornberry’s, call for an early general election as a result of the Conservative Party’s suppurating internal divisions over Brexit is not new.
At the Glastonbury Festival in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn said he expected to be in Downing Street by Christmas last year.
When December came around he said there would be an election in 2018 which would propel him to power. He has three months left. While the parliamentary numbers on Brexit are not good for any solution, it does not follow that Tory MPs will be turkeys voting for Christmas and produce a majority for an election.
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If Thornberry and Corbyn tried to whip all Labour MPs to vote with Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg for a full amputation Brexit to defeat Theresa May, many Labour MPs would refuse to obey the whip. After all, Jeremy Corbyn voted 500 times against the official Labour vote so he cannot demand loyalty for an opportunistic vote to defeat May.
Even if she did lose such a Brexit vote there is no certainty she would go. A subsequent confidence vote would see most Tory MPs, plus the DUP, providing a majority. In fact, there is no surer way of sending Tory MPs back into the Conservative fold than a grandstanding Labour announcement that they will vote against any deal the government cobbles together on Brexit in order to try and get an early election.
So Thornberry’s call for a Brexit general election may have the paradoxical effect of increasing support for the prime minister from Tory MPs and party activists in order precisely to avoid any risk of what the chancellor Philip Hammond called at the weekend the “Marxist” programme of Labour’s current anti-Blairite leadership.
And it is hardly a secret that Labour itself is as divided on Brexit as the Tories. Many Labour candidates in London, for example, can’t support the shadow cabinet’s supine acceptance that the UK must leave the single market and lose rights to live and work in Europe, given most of their voters oppose Brexit.
There is an alternative to a general election. And that would be for Thornberry to support – as the majority of Labour Party members now do – a people’s vote, given all the information we now have and the great fears for jobs, wages and investment in the event of any kind of Brexit.
Repeating the shop-worn demands for an election doesn’t change the political weather. If Corbyn or Thornberry were to call for a serious examination of a people’s vote, either or both would be showing the kind of leadership that alters the terms of debate and puts Labour alongside progressive forces, as well as the growing voices in the UK economy and civil society who are now seriously worried about Brexit.
And if Labour were to be seen as the architect of a people’s vote to stop Brexit, the party would then be in a powerful position to demand an election to remove an administration which has refused ever to question or challenge Brexit since June 2016.
Denis MacShane is the former minister of state for Europe. His latest book is Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (IB Tauris)
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