Tory posturing gives Labour’s leader an opportunity… but will he take it, asks JANE MERRICK
Two of the MPs most likely to be the next Conservative leader have been scrambling for attention this week. Clearly motivated by the prominence of Sajid Javid, whose stellar rise to home secretary prompted a wave of profile pieces tipping him to be Theresa May’s successor, his potential rivals have made sure they too have never been far away from the headlines. It is as if a dress rehearsal for the Tory leadership contest is now underway.
On a trip to Washington, Boris Johnson’s main mission was to convince Donald Trump – via the new secretary of state Mike Pompeo, as well as a diplomacy-by-TV appearance on the president’s favourite news programme, Fox and Friends – to stick with the Iran nuclear deal. But the foreign secretary had another message to deliver via the media, to his own leader. While in the US capital he told the Daily Mail that the Prime Minister would be ‘crazy’ to implement her idea of a customs partnership, which was blocked by Brexiteer ministers in her war cabinet last week, and, he said, would not mean the UK was ‘taking back control’.
Back in the UK, Jacob Rees-Mogg has been acting as if the leadership contest has already begun. Over the weekend, the Tory MP for North East Somerset gave a profile-raising interview in his kitchen and on his cricket lawn to Kay Burley of Sky News, and on Monday, while the country sweltered in record high May Day Bank Holiday temperatures, the double-breasted suit-wearing Rees-Mogg went on a walkabout with his wife and six children at a local village fete in the sort of photo opportunity normally seen during a leadership contest.
There are no signs that the Prime Minister is about to quit Downing Street – not imminently, anyway – but her failure to get her own way on the customs deal is a sign that her authority, already weakened by a series of mishaps, misjudgments and crises, is ebbing away. Those who want to succeed her are making sure they are getting ahead of the game. What is also clear is that those potential leadership candidates believe the way to success is to double down on their hard Brexit positions.
It has always been the case that the Conservative grassroots membership, who have the decisive final vote for their leader, are more eurosceptic than the MPs who represent them. But judging by the way the electorate voted in the council elections last week, Conservatives are becoming more aligned with Brexit than ever. The collapse of UKIP as a force in local government played a major part in this divergence along Leave/Remain lines. In areas where more than 60% of the electorate voted to Leave in 2016, Tory support in last Thursday’s elections went up by 13 points. In areas where less than 45% voted Leave, support for the Conservatives dropped by a point. As the Conservative vote becomes ever more distilled into a pro-Brexit flavour, so the party’s most ambitious politicians harden their Brexiteer stance.
Rees-Mogg, Johnson and other possible leadership contenders like Michael Gove will refuse to give up on a hard Brexit. But it also shows why former Remain-supporting Cabinet ministers who have their eyes on the Tory crown are becoming born-again Brexiteers. Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, and new home secretary Javid both backed Remain in 2016 yet are now adopting the hard Brexit stance of their colleagues in the war cabinet over the customs union.
Their vote, swinging behind Johnson, Gove, David Davis and Liam Fox, was crucial in blocking May’s customs partnership plan, under which there would be no customs checks but the UK would collect tariffs on behalf of Brussels. If Javid and Williamson intend, as expected, to enter a future leadership contest, it is hard to see how either man would now switch their support back to the Prime Minister’s proposal, given it could cost them votes in that leadership race.
It will be dispiriting, although not entirely surprising, to many Remain voters that Britain’s economic future is so dependent on the ambitions of would-be Conservative leaders. And the Prime Minister herself is likely to believe the only way she can stay in Downing Street is to continue to pursue a hard Brexit. As Professor John Curtice told the BBC on election night: ‘The vote that is helping to buoy up Theresa May’s popularity is very much a Leave vote. If the Conservatives are going to hang on to that vote, they are going to have to deliver a Brexit that, broadly speaking, appeals to the sympathies and instinct of Leave voters.’
The local election results did not just show an entrenching of Brexit along party lines, however. They also fitted the pattern of last year’s general election – that the wider electorate is opposed to a hard Brexit. The message of that snap election, in which May lost her Commons majority, was that voters rejected her hardline stance of ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. The local elections show that sentiment is growing stronger.
The May 3 polls were not a disaster for May, but nor were they a triumph. Similarly, they did not show an overwhelming surge for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. But it isn’t true to say that the local elections changed little. Crucially, there was a surge in support across the board for parties who oppose a hard Brexit. Labour may not be as vocal in their opposition to Brexit in general as many of their MPs and voters would like, but their support for some form of customs union classes them as anti-hard Brexit, along with the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. The final tally of council results shows that the soft Brexit/Remain coalition of those three parties gained 160 seats on the night, while the pro-hard Brexit axis of the Conservatives and UKIP lost 156 seats.
This shift in public sentiment suggests that, during the two years since the referendum, the detailed, protracted discussions about what Brexit really means – discussions that did not fully take place during the 2016 campaign – are making the British public aware of what a hard Brexit will really mean for the economy. At the weekend business secretary Greg Clark, who has become one of the leading proponents of a soft Brexit in the Cabinet now Amber Rudd has gone, warned that thousands of jobs in the car industry will be at risk if the UK did not have some form of customs partnership, ensuring frictionless trade with the EU.
He insisted that the customs partnership, May’s preferred option, was ‘still on the table’ despite it being blocked in the Brexit cabinet last week. Number 10 have also made clear this remains a viable option, and are frantically working on the details, meaning a follow-up meeting on the issue scheduled for this week has been postponed. Yet Clark’s warning of job losses and economic harm was dismissed by Rees-Mogg as ‘Project Fear’ – ignoring the expert warnings of business and instead resurrecting one of the most misleading tropes of the 2016 campaign.
When Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg and Johnson have to resort to inflammatory language like ‘crazy’ and ‘Project Fear’ to deny the realities of British withdrawal from the EU, it is surely a sign that they are worried support for their brand of hard Brexit is dwindling: not only in the House of Lords, where peers are inflicting defeat after defeat on the government, and in the House of Commons, where May does not have a majority, but also, as the local elections underlined, among voters.
It is not right, however, that only the government deserves scrutiny on how it proceeds with Brexit. The Labour Party needs to look at the lessons of the local election results and shape its policy on EU withdrawal accordingly. The falling support for a hard Brexit shows Corbyn, and the shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, are right to call for Britain to remain in a customs union with the EU. But, arguably, given the support in parliament and the country, they could go further in their opposition to a hard Brexit. As Chuka Umunna, the co-chairman of the all party group on EU relations, said this week, there is too much ambiguity from his party on the detail of Brexit.
In December, as Umunna says, Labour MPs were whipped to vote for an amendment tabled by Heidi Alexander, one of their number, on UK membership of the European Economic Area, of which Norway is a member. Although the amendment was not carried, 242 Labour MPs voted in favour. A similar amendment was put forward by the Labour peer Lord Alli on Tuesday, which would instruct the government to begin negotiating UK membership of the EEA. Under the plan, the UK would still leave the EU and be free of the Common Agricultural Policy, Common Fisheries Policy and the European Court of Justice, but would retain the benefits of being in the EU single market. Yet Labour peers were instructed by whips to abstain, rather than vote for the cross-party amendment, meaning it was not passed.
This, say critics of Corbyn’s equivocal position, is just one example of where Labour is not taking advantage of government disarray on Brexit. Those critics are right to urge the Labour leader to mark out a more distinctive position for the benefit of both the country and the party. Instead of trying not to put off some Labour Leave-supporting voters in the short term, they could win votes at the next general election – and even a majority – by being clearer on opposing a hard Brexit now. The Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP all have distinctive anti-Brexit positions, but only Labour has the numbers in parliament to make a real difference.
Now that the local elections are out of the way, there is no nationwide poll before Brexit takes place on March 29 next year. Corbyn does not need to fight shy of an imminent election and can afford to be bolder. Labour has the power to deliver what the British people want – which is to stop a hard Brexit from happening. As Alastair Campbell said at the weekend to the annual Progress conference, Labour should be ‘tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit’.
The current Labour policy of the UK remaining in a form of customs union is good, but it is not distinctive enough from May’s customs partnership. If Labour had, in recent months, pushed a more standalone policy – full backing for staying in the single market, for example – would they have done better in the local elections? It is now impossible to tell. Can Labour give a firm commitment for staying in the single market, under a plan along the lines of the Alli amendment that would see Britain adopt a form of Norway model, without losing votes at the next election? It is surely possible, it just requires clarity of message and leadership.
In any case, Corbyn should take this opportunity in the interests of British people and economy, which are best served inside the single market. While Conservative ministers and MPs vie for attention and use the Brexit negotiations as a way to boost their leadership credentials in the eyes of their own members, the Labour leader has a chance to save the UK from a hard Brexit.