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The Con-Lab Brexit talks are dead and the parties should say so

May 16th, 2019

The differences are unbridgeable and any deal unratifiable

Like a sketch show parody of a Victorian dinner crossed with Weekend at Bernie’s, the negotiators in the Con-Lab Brexit negotiations have been determined to maintain the pretence that all is still well despite the talks having died some time during the soup course; it’s just that everyone is too polite to say so.

That pretence has finally begun to break down as both the realities of the talks themselves and the combined effect of the local elections just gone and the European elections pending take their toll on MPs of both main parties. All the same, Lidington, Starmer and co will still resume and – who knows – might even produce an agreement.

If they do, it’ll be another classic case of conferencitis, where those in the room were so keen to do a deal that they forgot to take adequate account of the need to get that deal ratified. It wouldn’t be the first time this’d have happened in the Brexit process, of course. Cameron’s initial negotiations produced an outcome so meagre that he’d probably have been better either not starting the talks at all. Even more obviously, May’s Withdrawal Arrangement has proven unratifiable despite the risks of not ratifying it.

With Con and Lab MPs already in mutinous mood, the demands on the negotiators were always impossible. Con MPs certainly won’t sign up to any major concessions and if sufficiently provocative concessions are included, might well react by moving directly against the PM. By contrast, Labour MPs, uncomfortably aware of the Lib Dems, Greens and other Remainers breathing down their necks, were hardly likely to sign up to a Brexit most are already deeply uncomfortable with, especially if the PM couldn’t be trusted to deliver it.

The demand that any deal be put to a ‘confirmatory referendum’ should be the last straw that forces a breakdown. It stems from Labour’s conference and is an excellent example of why policy shouldn’t be made by composite. A referendum is inimical to any Brexit deal. Opinion has moved so far against compromise and into mutually hostile No Deal and Remain/Revoke camps that it would be impossible to legislate for a referendum without both those options being on the ballot, and impossible to deliver any deal if they are there.

What incentive then is there for the government to sign up to something it knows could not pass? Likewise, though less often stated, it would surely have to be a quid pro quo that if the government signed up to many Labour demands, then Labour would have to be obliged to campaign for the deal in a public vote: a requirement that MPs, members and the NEC would be highly likely to reject in favour of Remain.

Put simply, Labour (although not yet its leadership) will not now allow any Brexit to occur, except by accident. The Tories (although perhaps not yet its leadership) will not allow any possibility of Brexit not occurring, except by accident. The demand for an EURef2 is a deal-breaker.

In all probability, we were always going to end up here anyway. Even if the referendum demand hadn’t been made, Corbyn’s insistence on membership of the Customs Union and for the UK to mirror a whole swathe of EU regulation would probably have made any agreement unratifiable on the Con side.

When the talks do break down, where does that leave the key players? For Labour, most will be unaffected. Starmer will gain credit for engaging and then effectively disengaging. Corbyn won’t be damaged so much by the failure of the talks as by his continuing clear acceptance of the principle of Brexit, if not all the current details. MPs will feel emboldened against the leadership again (a feeling likely to grow if the Euroelection results are poor for the party) but his position remains largely secure.

By contrast, May will have run out of road. The Withdrawal Agreement remains the only deal on the table but one whose best chance of ratification has passed, as both Tory and Labour MPs retreat from the compromise it represents, in reflection of the public doing likewise. What purpose does the PM then serve? It’s hard to see any, other than acting as a tactical bed-blocker against disliked potential successors.

But that’s not a sustainable position, as the clock is running down on the October Brexit extension, on May’s 12-month notional protection from a leadership challenge and on the next general election (which may be a lot sooner than 2022). If the Tories do as badly in the EP elections as polls suggest, members and MPs will demand changes and may well conclude that the change needed is to appeal to the voters attracted by Farage’s simplistic populism – which would at least make clear the choice that’s been implicit for weeks: No Deal or No Brexit.

David Herdson