There is a way back from this... if we can resist the trap that lies ahead

PUBLISHED: 19:09 14 December 2019 | UPDATED: 19:09 14 December 2019

Boris Johnson during a visit to see newly elected Conservative party MP for Sedgefield, Paul Howell during a visit to Sedgefield Cricket Club in County Durham. Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby/PA Wire.

Boris Johnson during a visit to see newly elected Conservative party MP for Sedgefield, Paul Howell during a visit to Sedgefield Cricket Club in County Durham. Photograph: Lindsey Parnaby/PA Wire.

The election result was devastating for the Remain movement, but there is a way to salvage something from it, says JAMES BALL.

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The first stage of dealing with a blow like this one is acceptance.

There will be virtually nothing any politician can do during this parliament to challenge the commanding majority the Conservatives have garnered. The time for such manoeuvring has passed.

What's left can seem hopeless, especially when the prospect of stopping Brexit has felt so real for so long. But it will be essential for the movement against Brexit - and especially the Labour movement - to try to bring itself back together as swiftly as possible, and it's here that some small victories on Brexit might be attained.

After a loss as devastating as Labour's on Thursday, the natural reaction will be one of recriminations - a mood only heightened by the antagonism between different factions of the party before polling day.

The reflexive reaction of those loyal to Jeremy Corbyn will be to blame the "centrists" and "Blairites" who never signed up to the party's new agenda. Similarly, the Corbyn sceptics will be fighting a powerful desire to cry out: "I told you so."

If either or both of these impulses is indulged, it could split the left still further. Boris Johnson - more than 100 seats ahead of Labour - will not naturally feel threatened by the party. If it seems on the verge of splitting or collapse, it will only become easier to ignore.

The only way the prime minister will regard Labour - or the broader Remain movement - as a threat is if it seems a viable proposition at forthcoming elections. If different factions indulge their impulses and launch a season of open warfare, that will become an ever-more distant prospect.

That means a harder road is ahead. The catharsis of blame is something neither Labour nor the Remain coalition can engage in. We have to accept we 
will not now get what we most wanted: Brexit is now an inevitability, and what is to come is only moderating its worst effects.

What is within our power is how quickly we can once again be viable challengers that worry the Conservative Party. This is something that will require the fervour and motivation of Momentum and others in the 2019 campaign, but coupled with the votes and support that Labour lost in this election.

In short, it will take some serious self-reflection from all factions, and a bid to genuinely learn and grow, rather than either explain away this catastrophic election failure, or else lay the blame on a particular segment of the party. The easy and natural thing to do for many Labour partisans will be to launch a civil war. That's an impulse that needs to be tempered.

The Conservatives now hold all the cards. They have a commanding majority in the Commons, and retain a strong command of the Lords - and given their Brexit commitments in the manifesto, face no serious hurdles on passing the withdrawal agreement. Johnson is set to negotiate the future agreement on his own terms.

But he is not a popular prime minister, even if he is one with an unassailable majority. This personal unpopularity and the fragility of his supposed landslide could make any serious opposition party appear a viable threat pretty quickly - maybe not soon enough to influence Brexit talks, but perhaps in time to sway negotiations on the UK's future relationship with the EU.

The window for action is desperately tight. Every impulse of the Corbynite Left and the Left which defines itself against that is to attack one another, and lay the blame for the catastrophic election result at someone else's doorstep. That would be easy to do, and some will engage in it.

It is also, though, the move that lets Johnson off the hook. If Labour and the anti-Brexit Left could quickly reunite and rally around clear messaging, the prospect of holding Johnson's Brexit plans to account still becomes real, and if the party polls well, the prospect of it as a democratic check on Johnson stays real, too.

History suggests Labour and the broader Remain movement that hitched its cart to the party will turn on one another in the wake of this catastrophic election defeat. But the past need not dictate the future.

If the party and its supporters can rise above recriminations and look forwards, if they can focus on the election result and managing it rather than focusing on losses, they can perhaps concentrate attention on Johnson's government and its actions, rather than giving it a free rein.

This was the nightmare election result. There are virtually no silver linings to cling to. But there is still a chance to salvage something from the wreckage. The big question is whether the Labour movement is ready to seize it.

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