In September, Labour conference will impose on Jeremy Corbyn a policy of backing a second referendum in all circumstances. So, I say in The Sun this morning, what will he do between now and then?
Corbyn has two paths open to him. He can either decide to embrace a second referendum now or do a deal with Theresa May so that the UK is out of the EU before Labour conference meets.
If Corbyn went the second referendum route, he would ensure that Labour did well in the European Parliament elections next month as it scoops up the votes of energised Remainers while the Tories have lumps taken out of their support by Nigel Farage’s Brexit party and Ukip. He’d also take the wind out of Change UK’s sails.
But there are risks to this approach: Labour coming out for a second referendum would cost them in their Leave voting seats and in the constituencies they must win to form a government. Of the 45 seats in England and Wales that Corbyn needs to get a majority, 35 voted leave. While 16 of his 20 most vulnerable seats backed Brexit.
Corbyn’s other option is to do a deal with Mrs May. If he pushed her into accepting a customs union, then he would further divide the Tories. A deal would also mean Britain was out and that Corbyn could fight the next election on the domestic issues he cares about most. As one Cabinet Minister puts it, ‘There is an appeal for Corbyn to support something. He can create fissures within the Tory party, look serious, and if he becomes PM he doesn’t have to deal with all this crap.’
But there are big risks to this approach too. If Corbyn helped a Brexit deal over the line, there would almost certainly be more defections from the Labour party. It would also produce a rallying cry for Chuka and co. They’d be able to tell pro-Remain voters (and remember that Labour voters went for Remain by a two to one margin in the referendum) that Labour had betrayed them, that it could have stopped Brexit but chose not to.
This is a finely balanced decision for Corbyn. But he doesn’t have long to make up his mind. If the Tories take a pasting in either next month’s local elections or the European election, then Mrs May could be gone as Tory leader—replaced by a Brexiteer. This new Tory leader would immediately break off talks with Corbyn. If he wants to deal, he needs to do it soon.
Which way will he go? Well, one of those involved tells me that the situation in the talks is ‘less negative than people think’. But the likelihood of these talks producing something remains low. What would make a deal attractive to Jeremy Corbyn would make it unpalatable to Theresa May. There’s also no guarantee that a May / Corbyn deal could make it through the Commons.
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