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JAMES BALL: The top of politics could soon look even weaker than it already does

The only team that wants to get out of Europe, but with a manager that can't make it happen. Image: Chris Barker/TNE. - Credit: Archant

JAMES BALL believes both the Conservatives and Labour are playing for a draw when it comes to Brexit, meaning we all lose out.

Once again, the Labour and Conservative front benches are meeting up through the week to discuss a possible Brexit compromise. So far, so much groundhog-Brexit-as-usual.

But unlike before, there are murmurings – even if faint – that the two sides might actually be considering trying to strike a deal with one another, rather than going through the motions.

Given the Conservative and Labour front benches are ideologically further apart than they have been since Thatcher, and that neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Theresa May is known as a master dealmaker or conciliator, this is yet another extraordinary moment in British politics.

It is one we have arrived at thanks to our politics being weaker than at any time in living memory, with Labour and the Conservatives facing two election defeats in a month, first at the hands of pro-Remain minor parties last week, and, potentially, again in a fortnight at the hands of the Brexit Party.

That leaves Corbyn – already against a second referendum – facing the prospect of making pro-EU concessions weeks before a vote he thinks would punish him for them. It leaves May facing third or even fourth place at the elections. It leaves both of them looking for a way out.

Perhaps that way is each other – or perhaps not, because even if a deal is struck, it’s unlikely to pass.

How did we get to here? The answer is a mix of each leadership being stuck between its own desires, the desires of its MPs, the sometimes contradictory desires of their voters – and the reinvigorated threat at the ballot box, as highlighted by last week’s elections.

Let’s look first at the paralysis of each front bench in the face of their own MPs. The position for the Tories is simple enough: they can’t pursue a no-deal Brexit as parliament won’t pass it. They can’t pursue a harder Brexit as the EU won’t give the concessions they need, and they can’t soften (much) or cancel Brexit as their own party will eviscerate them if they try.

What’s easier to miss is that the opposition are similarly trapped – though in their case it’s a trap partly of their own making. While Labour can make short-term hay with talking points about a “jobs-first Brexit” versus a “bad Tory Brexit”, its frontbench would be faced with having to actually deliver a better Brexit deal if it pushed this line too far.

Given the Withdrawal Agreement can’t be reopened – only passed or rejected as-is – the Labour leadership knows no such better deal really exists, unless it changes its mind on free movement and single market membership.

Labour could soften Brexit, or support a second referendum – its own parliamentary party and membership would back either. However, the party leadership seems loath to do this, partly because of their own ideology, and partly because they’ve been convinced Labour needs to triangulate and try to appeal to Leave-leaning and Remain-leaning areas. It had previously been convinced this was working. The local election results hint that it might just be infuriating both sides equally.

Labour’s current customs union policy is remarkably similar to a permanent version of the backstop, as negotiated by Theresa May. Until now, the politics of both parties suited the leaderships’ continued pretending that those differences are some vast gulf, with lots of stand-offs and walking out of talks.

The local elections may have changed that: while they were not solely (or even necessarily mainly) about Brexit, there is no chance that’s not the issue at the root of discontentment with both Conservatives and Labour.

A comparison of the share of the vote held by the big two parties at 2017’s general election and then at the 2019 local elections – while not directly comparable – speaks of a story of disillusionment: the two parties together polled more than 80% of total votes in 2017, slumping to a national vote share equivalent of just 56% this year. That’s a collapse to focus the mind.

The Conservatives had the most obviously bad result last week, losing more than 1,300 council seats in England alone, a damning outcome far worse than even the poor result that they were teeing up in their expectations management ahead of the vote.

Labour had a result much better on paper, losing just 82 or so council seats in England, but when you’re up against a divided and unpopular party which has been in government for nine years – especially when you’re trying to say you’re at the forefront of a movement sweeping the country – losing seats, rather than gaining hundreds of them, is its own kind of disaster.

Analysing the result is a little more complex than it seems on the surface, as both major parties lost similar number of votes in Leave-supporting areas as Remain-supporting ones, but the big winners of the night were Remain-leaning parties.

The Liberal Democrats and Greens alike each had the best results in their party’s history, gaining hundreds of seats, as UKIP was virtually wiped out. Remain supporters were exuberant – just the good news that was wanted ahead of what is shaping up to be an exceptionally difficult EU election battle, which could see momentum shift back towards Brexiteers, given the polls suggest a triumph for Farage’s new party.

So what do you do when you’re a major party and you can’t play for a win? The obvious answer is to go for a draw – judging by the messaging from the Labour and Conservative leaderships in the immediate aftermath of the vote, there’s a thought that if they can just thrash out a deal and rush something through before MEPs take their seat, they can neutralise Brexit as an issue and see off their respective threats from the smaller parties.

Given the incentives to them to do so, it is – perhaps amazingly – entirely possible that Corbyn’s Labour and May’s Conservatives could actually agree some sort of deal, relating to a customs union for at least some period of time (especially given that’s already the backstop). Remembering the personalities involved, this would be difficult enough, but that’s the easy bit.

The good news for those who would oppose Brexit – or would oppose a compromise – is that that’s as far as any compromise deal would be likely to get. Opinion on the Labour benches has solidified around what supporters insist was always the conference position: no deal without ratification through a second referendum, if there’s not going to be a general election.

The Conservative backbenches are similarly grouchy: May is a leader on her way out, with enemies on all sides, and MPs who didn’t like her initial deal are hardly disposed to pass through what they would see as a worse deal just to save the PM.

That means that there’s every chance the government and main opposition party could come together and agree a historical deal on an international agreement to decide the UK’s economic future for years or decades to come – and then it could go absolutely nowhere.

The big parties are feeling threatened by their smaller rivals: for the Tories, the Brexit Party and, to a lesser extent, UKIP, for Labour, it is the Lib Dems, Greens, Change UK, the SNP and Plaid Cymru.

They’re trying to play for a draw, to neutralise Brexit as an issue – by making stopping or changing it impossible, at least for some time. But given just how weak both leaderships are at present, they might manage to lose once again.

The top of politics could soon look even weaker than it already does. The game has changed.

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