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The inside story of the election defeat that doomed Labour and sealed Brexit

Then Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, alongside his shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

In a special report on the anniversary of the 2019 election, Francis Beckett pieces together the inside moments and key decisions – or lack of them – which sealed Labour’s fate.

A year ago, a hard Brexit and an 80 seat parliamentary majority for Boris Johnson was the nightmare scenario which few expected. Johnson was not trusted, and polls were showing a clear Remain majority. In the June 2017 general election, Labour had deprived Theresa May of her parliamentary majority. There was all to play for.

So how did Labour pluck defeat from the jaws of victory? I’ve been asking some key players and studying accounts of various meetings and discussions in the two years leading up to the election. What follows is the inside story of the meetings at which the party’s disastrous Brexit strategy evolved. The quotes attributed to the Labour figures involved are either verbatim from documents, or from notes written shortly afterwards by those present. Together, these accounts paint a highly detailed picture of a Labour opposition that was even more dysfunctional than we imagined, obsessed by leaks, with a terminally indecisive leader pathetically dependant on his strategy and communications chief, Seumas Milne, an old-school Lexiter.

Milne had told his leader, Jeremy Corbyn, that the better than expected showing in June 2017 had been due to the party keeping “the right balance on Brexit” and in the chaotic period between the two elections he sought to continue this strategy. He and policy adviser Andrew Fisher wrote a paper called ‘Brexit: A New Approach’ for the leader to present to the shadow cabinet. They decided not to circulate it in advance, knowing that shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer and others would not like it.

At the shadow cabinet’s Brexit subcommittee on January 10, 2018, Milne had to sit silently and watch his boss try to defend it. Corbyn proceeded to read the paper aloud.

It said: “We also need to reject the prescriptions of the ‘Stop Brexit’ and ‘join EFTA’ camps. We respect the result of the referendum, which was won on the slogan ‘Take Back Control’, so we cannot accept a Norway-style model that would leave us a rule-taker not a rule-maker.” It said nothing about the future relationship with the EU, the customs union or the single market.

Starmer exploded. He said the paper was an insult to him and his team, that it had been “sprung on us with no discussion, no consultation, no prior notice”. He was not willing to defend this position in the media. He seemed to feel affronted that so shabby and obvious a ruse had been tried on him. “I am not naïve,” he said.

Corbyn’s old friend Diane Abbott was glad Starmer had been so blunt. Getting this right was key to winning the next general election (the “last shot for oldies like Jeremy and me”). Polls showed that Labour Party members overwhelmingly wanted a second referendum, she said, and Brexit was increasingly identified with xenophobia and jingoism.

Shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner tried to help Corbyn. He said the single market meant voters not getting what they wanted. Starmer snapped: “We’ve had this out before. Do behave like an adult.”

There was nothing for it but retreat. Corbyn ally Jon Trickett said: “It’s only a framing document, it doesn’t commit us.” Corbyn said it was only a discussion paper.

All copies of the paper were collected, to avoid leaks, and everyone was sworn to secrecy. They met again five weeks later to discuss a new paper, ‘Updated lines on Brexit’, which had Starmer’s reluctant acquiescence. Numbered copies were handed out, and collected again at the end of the meeting.

This time, Milne did not risk letting the leader do his own work. Milne opened for his boss, and at the end he summed up for his boss.

The paper wasn’t new, Milne said, it just filled out and developed existing positions. Starmer at once contradicted Milne – it obviously was new, he said. Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary, insisted on getting rid of Tory Eurosceptic-style wording. Richard Corbett, Labour leader in the European parliament, wanted to take out the words that ruled out a second referendum, and the phrase “Britain is leaving the EU”.

Milne said that a committee was no way to draft a document. The points made in the debate would find their way into the speech Corbyn was due to make in a week’s time, he said. But when, a few day later, the speech went out, it was still essentially the Milne line, and included the words “Britain is leaving the EU.” A despairing member of Corbyn’s staff told Corbett: “It’s what happens when you have press team not entirely on board.”

Corbett, who attended the shadow cabinet as leader of the Labour MEPs, had written several articles arguing that Labour should not rule out a new referendum on the actual deal. So there was an attempt to get him to agree that all his statements should be signed off by Corbyn’s office – in effect, by Milne. Corbett politely declined, and proceeded to spell out, to the Yorkshire Labour Conference, the position that Corbyn’s office was anxious to suppress.

The government’s leaked assessments showed the Yorkshire economy was going to decline by 7% if there was no deal, by 4.5% if there was only a free trade agreement. “We need at least to remain in a customs union with the EU,” he said.

But Gardiner told the shadow cabinet that Labour must say firmly it was against a second referendum. Another Corbyn ally, Trickett, added that, while he was canvassing for Labour in the local government elections, he found people very worried that the party was admitting the possibility of being in a customs union. “Which was odd,” one senior Labour politician told me, “since he had said that a bad back prevented him from campaigning”.

Labour’s 2018 conference decided that the party must vote against any deal which did not pass its six tests. If the deal was rejected by the House of Commons, and if this did not trigger a general election, Labour was keeping all options open – including a popular vote. John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, was saying privately that Labour was heading towards a ‘stop Brexit’ position. But was Jeremy on board?

Corbyn was dragged to the point where, in late February 2019, he announced that Labour would vote for a second referendum if its alternative deal was rejected. In interviews, Thornberry said that Remain would be an option on the ballot paper, and she and Corbyn would campaign for it. A ‘Labour spokesman’, presumably Milne, then briefed that Thornberry had “misspoken”. She tweeted : “Pretty hard to misspeak identically in 10 interviews.”

The Milne camp was fighting a rearguard action. At a three-hour shadow cabinet Brexit discussion on March 5 last year, Ian Lavery, party chairman, and Richard Burgon, shadow justice secretary, tried to overturn the decision. Lavery asked: when had they decided that Remain would be on the ballot paper? Starmer replied that it been agreed six weeks ago “and you were at the meeting”.

Two weeks later, they met again, and Lavery tried again to reverse the policy, saying the electoral outlook was grim because of Labour’s support for a referendum as well as the behaviour “of some of our colleagues here”. But Starmer told the meeting: “I can’t go on saying ‘we’re for a People’s Vote but not yet’. All our other options have been voted down.”

Corbyn was in a state of chronic indecision, from which he never quite emerged. One of his staff said that Corbyn’s view on Brexit reflected the last person he spoke to.

The socialist leader in the European parliament, Udo Bullmann, told Corbyn: “If you don’t want a no-deal Brexit, but you’re against the only deal on the table, there are only two other possibilities: an alternative deal, or not going ahead with Brexit. An alternative deal is very difficult. Not proceeding with Brexit is legally very easy. You will have our full support and solidarity if you back that option.”

Corbett spoke at the million-strong People’s Vote march on March 23. Afterwards he told Corbyn that if he too had spoken there, he would have boosted Labour in the polls. Corbyn replied: “Yes, but wouldn’t we have lost votes up north?” Corbett, not for the first time, went through polling figures Corbyn’s advisers had apparently withheld from him. But Lavery was there to explain that the million-strong march and the six million signatures on a petition to cancel Brexit were all middle class.

According to a leaked account of the next shadow cabinet meeting obtained by the Observer, Lavery “was very angry and wagged his finger at Jeremy, telling him that if he backed a referendum he would go down in history as the Labour leader who split the party… Jeremy just sat there.” Lavery and Trickett both defied a three line whip, which helped enable Theresa May’s government to survive a series of key votes on Brexit, but they were, surprisingly, not ejected from the shadow cabinet.

The April 30 shadow cabinet meeting to approve the manifesto for the following month’s European elections saw one of the oddest events of the whole odd saga. The draft manifesto was presented, with all the designs – but no text. Where were the words, asked Emily Thornberry? Lavery replied: if we give you the words, Tom Watson will leak them.

Watson – the party’s deputy leader – walked out, and the words were put up on a screen, so that no one could take them out of the room. And, of course, they referred to the “option” of holding a referendum. It wasn’t just an option, protested Thornberry, Starmer and McDonnell. Then Labour’s national executive had the same debate, and decided by a small majority to keep the word “option”.

Corbett told the Labour MEPs: “The battle has already started on how to interpret it. We must put a positive gloss on it. Not to do so would label Labour as a Brexit party. We can’t afford that.”

Labour’s ambiguity led to a haemorrhage of votes to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in the European elections, while the Conservatives lost votes to the Brexit Party. It was a terrible result for both parties. Theresa May resigned as Prime Minister.

So would Corbyn now come out with a firm, unequivocal statement that a People’s Vote would be demanded on any deal? The answer, it turned out, was a very definite maybe. Before the June 19 shadow cabinet meeting, there was a leak that he would. Outside the room, Milne was briefing the media that the shadow cabinet was trying to unite Leavers and Remainers, but inside, McDonnell was saying the exact opposite: that the main lesson from the polls is that sitting on the fence alienates all. “It also shows that we’re losing Jeremy’s ‘authentic’ image” he added.

“Our position has run out of road. Fence-sitting is seen as us being incapable of taking decisions. We’re also losing our army of volunteers. We can’t wait beyond next week to take a decision. Johnson may go for an October election. We need to call for a public vote on any outcome and campaign to Remain. Anything less will not be clear enough. The party must be for Remain, even if, Harold Wilson-style, we find a solution for individuals who dissent.”

But Corbyn still seemed unable to impose the policy. He tried again to resolve the issue at the end of June, and failed again, even though Corbyn’s oldest friends, McDonnell and Abbott, warned that the current lack of clarity was causing severe damage to morale among party members and voters who supported Corbyn. Thornberry said: “We need a decision today – this is about leadership.” “It’s like a slow-moving car crash” said McDonnell.

Starmer said that backing a referendum would instantly prompt the question of which side the party would take in that referendum – and it had to campaign for ‘Remain’. But Corbyn, with the support of Lavery and Trickett, put it off for another month while he consulted the unions.

Surely Labour could not go into its September 2019 conference with a fudge? Well, yes, it could. A woolly NEC statement, agreed in haste and by email, and subsequently endorsed by delegates, said that Labour would not decide how it would campaign in a referendum until the time came.

By October, the polls looked terrible for Labour. Going for a referendum before an election was looking more and more attractive. Chief whip Nick Brown reckoned he was just five votes short of getting a Commons majority for a referendum, and was sure the gap could be bridged by whipping. But they went for an election instead.

“A Brexit general election will squeeze us from both sides” Emily Thornberry told the shadow cabinet. And it did.

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