Len: The man who could put the brakes on Brexit

PUBLISHED: 09:00 04 January 2018 | UPDATED: 09:36 04 January 2018

Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite

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Our editor-at-large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on the influence wielded by Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, on Brexit

‘Only one more Brexmas to Brexit,’ taunted one of my few remaining Brexit-supporting friends. ‘Happy New Year.’

Happy New Year? Fat chance, unless 2018 is the year the Brexit Blunderbus is brought to a halt or, failing that, at least to a course that does not involve our economy tanking and our children’s futures flying over a cliff. But how? And, more to the point, who?

Time is not on our side. The time span looking forward from today to the planned exit date of March 2019, is shorter than the time span looking back to June 23, 2016.

And did not the scale of the pre-Brexmas Brextremist rejoicing over blue passports serve to underline how little has been achieved and how much has been lost already? Even before it has happened, pound down because of Brexit, growth down, and staying down, standing in the world down, money available for the NHS down when they promised it would rise… but let’s drown all that out with cheers over the colour of a travel document, even if the red one could take us freely to 27 countries whereas the blue will make us automatically welcome in… one.

Theresa May’s Twitter bot went all gooey-eyed over this backward time travelling. “The UK passport is an expression of our independence and sovereignty – symbolising our citizenship of a proud, great nation,” it said. “That’s why we have announced that the iconic blue passport will return after we leave the European Union in 2019.”

Even Nigel Farage, who is rarely off the airwaves telling us how marvellous Brexit will be, hailed it as “the first real tangible victory that we have had since that referendum”.

Forgive me for saying these three heinous words, but Farage is right… I mean, what else has been achieved? Eighteen months on from the referendum that led to May becoming Prime Minister, amid all the carnage, amid the chaos of a cabinet that has yet to agree a negotiating strategy or a desired final outcome, amid negotiations so badly conducted they will one day be taught in civil service colleges as a stunning example of how not to do it, a passport colour change – that is it. I think we know what happens to football managers who go that long with just one win to their name…

If I may take the football manager analogy one step further, May is trying to play out the longest nil-nil draw in history. From the moment EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said “the clock is ticking”, our leader stepped to the edge of her technical area and yelled out, “right lads, get that ball down to the corner flag and keep it there”.

This is what it has come to. We are proceeding with Brexit not because it is going to be good for the country – when was the last time you heard her say anything remotely like that? – but because the people voted for it on June 23, 2016; and in so far as there is a strategy, it is one of fatalism – it is happening, there is a cut-off date, and we just need to get there.

It is a strategy driven not by national interest, or the genuine issues and challenges emerging from the negotiations, but by the slow, steady movement of the hands of a clock.

But if May, Davis, Johnson and Fox are running down the clock in one corner, Jeremy Corbyn’s team, instead of trying to get the ball off them, and beat them, are playing their own time-wasting game at the other end of the pitch. The problem is they are playing two different games, set to two different clocks. May is playing Brexit, with the final whistle due in March 2019. Corbyn is playing elections, hoping the next one will come sooner rather than later, but knowing at the latest it must come by 2022. If it comes before, it will be because the government collapses over Brexit, and he can pick up the pieces. If it comes after, he is assuming the Tories will cop the political blame for the mess he knows Brexit will create. Whichever schedule you’re on, however, that is a long time to be hanging around the corner flag.

And one key tactic in the government’s fatalism strategy, to which Mrs May is well-suited, is grinding down the crowd, hoping we get so bored we turn to each other and say ‘come on, this had got nil-nil written all over it, let’s leave early and beat the traffic’.

Given how badly she fared the last time she tried to play elections, and how poorly she performed, you can understand why May wants to stick to her Brexit fatalism game.

And as Corbyn started the election game with most people expecting him to lose 5-0, but managed to keep it to 3-2, you can perhaps understand why he wants to focus on elections. But precisely because the expectations are now so different, so is the battleground, and he is wrong if he thinks he can play the same game again. He has gone from being the hapless underdog to perhaps being the only answer to the question ‘who can stop Brexit?’

May, having sold out completely to the UKIP wing of her party, is something of a lost cause. So when it comes to the who and the how, if Brexit is to be rethought, Corbyn is a big part of both.

Of course he can’t do it alone. First, he needs the people. He needs them should he decide a change of position. Realistically, such a change can only come via a general election, fought and won on an explicit ‘think again’ policy, or, more likely, a referendum on the final deal from the Brexit negotiations.

As is clear from his recent pronouncements, he is also going to need a lot of pressure to shift to a position of backing the principle of a referendum.

That pressure is beginning to come. Trade unions are rightly becoming more and more anxious about the impact of Brexit on the jobs, lives and living standards of their members. The conventional wisdom that Labour risk losing swathes of northern working class seats if they change position is also challenged by assessments showing that the economic impact of Brexit is going to be at its most severe in northern working class areas.

Labour will win back lost support, and hold existing support from Leavers, not by a ‘me too’ stance on Brexit, but by showing they understand, and have the policies to address, the reasons behind their Brexit vote – whether immigration, inequality, the sense of communities falling behind the rest of the country, and a loss of connection with the power structures governing their lives.

Tough on Brexit, tough on the causes of Brexit, including now those public services, health and crime, transport and schools, being directly and negatively impacted both by the economic downturn, and by the bandwidth
issue which means government is focusing on Brexit to the exclusion of all else.

Pleas for a change from people like me, the Labour left having sadly helped the Tory right in making ‘Blairite’ a swearword, will have little impact on Corbyn, or on the cadre of privately educated anti-EU Communists who have his ear. But if Len McCluskey and other trade union leaders decided their own members’ interests and Labour’s electoral interests would coincidentally benefit from change, it could happen, and quickly.

This, of course, is assuming McCluskey can remain in post amid ongoing wranglings over his controversial re-election last year.

It is not an ignoble ambition to want to be Prime Minister, perhaps especially if you have spent decades toiling away as a backbencher for whom the thought seemed ridiculous. Corbyn only recently began to think it might actually happen. But the ‘facing both ways’ constructive ambiguity on Brexit which seemed to help him at the last election will not withstand the pressures of the next one.

So before he gets to play the election game, he has to play the Brexit game, like it or not. That means facing tough choices. Which is what leadership is about.

And if he doesn’t choose clearly, he risks Brexit becoming a story of Cameron the father, May the mother, and Corbyn the midwife. History will not judge that role kindly, not least because if he does reach Downing Street, Brexit will be a bonfire to the plans in his manifesto. As May takes the hit she is going to take for putting party before country, Corbyn has the opportunity to align his party interest, winning, with the national interest, namely preventing national catastrophe.

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