Tuesday, 26 February 2019

May and Corbyn try to hold their parties together

Today Theresa May yet again returned to parliament to make a statement on her deal to leave the European Union. And, yet again, she was unable to announce any progress. Instead, she announced that the government would put her deal back to parliament in the middle of March - the deal that was supposed to have been decided upon by parliament back in December.

However, she did present parliament with some variations. She promised to allow parliament to vote, not only for her deal, but if they voted it down, they could also vote on leaving without a deal, and, if they voted against doing so, they could vote to instruct the government to seek an extension of Article 50, so as to delay our leaving. This was a massive concession to the Remainers in parliament, as could be seen from the fact that Oliver Letwin immediately after the debate posted a tweet saying the Cooper/Letwin proposed bill, which would seek to ensure the government seeks a delay, is no longer necessary.

The prime minister's change of position was clearly motivated by the public threats of members of her government to resign if leaving the European Union without a deal was to become government policy or even merely an inevitable consequence of not being able to secure a parliamentary majority for her deal. Yet, from the sequencing she set out, it is clear that she was determined to use this u-turn that her own ministers had forced upon her as leverage to force Leavers to vote for her deal, regardless of the concessions that she might be able to squeeze from the European Union.

Theresa May was also assisted by the Labour Party leadership in this tactic. They had announced last night that they would now support a second referendum. Whilst this move by the Labour Party is unlikely to be capable of commanding a majority, it can only act to put further pressure on those who wish to leave. Thus, the effect of the changes in positions by the two front benches has been to strengthen the Remainers and to frighten the Leavers with the prospect of our remaining in the European Union.

For Theresa May, this is a high risk tactic. She is risking creating a civil war within her own party. The Remainers in her parliamentary party are a small minority. Even more significantly, the Remainers are a tiny minority in her party in the country. A failure to deliver (and in the near future) our exit would almost certainly make it impossible for her to govern.

Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn's change of position is one that has been forced upon him in an effort to maintain party unity, but equally runs the risk of causing a serious split in the party. Whilst the majority of the Labour Party, both in parliament and the country, are Remainers, this is not the case with Labour voters. Many Labour members of parliament represent Leave constituencies and all of them were elected at the last general election on a manifesto that promised to respect the result of the referendum. Thus, in trying to hold his party together, Corbyn is risking alienating his electoral base and ensuring that Labour lose the next general election - something his enemies, all of whom are Remainers, in his own parliamentary party would consider to be a price worth paying, as they would assume that they would then be able to be rid of him.

The paradoxes are the inevitable result of the clash between representative democracy and direct democracy that was unleashed when David Cameron decided to call the referendum on the issue of the European Union: an issue that does not neatly fit into the traditional party politics. The referendum was bound to create serious problems for both the Conservatives and Labour. But the political elite were sure that Remain would win and the problem would be shelved for at least a generation. However, once Leave won the vote, it was inevitable that the issue would be all consuming. And so it has proved to be.

It is three years since the contest was set in motion and, throughout those three years, the political elite have been obsessed by the issue. Even now, a mere month before we are scheduled to leave, there is no certainty about what will happen, other than the arguments will continue.

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