Britain today feels like a country trapped inside a runaway train that is speeding towards a cliff edge with no-one at the controls seemingly able to do anything to stop it. With British Prime Minister Theresa May still insisting against all the odds that she can force her Brexit deal through parliament and ruling out another referendum if the vote fails, the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal at all grows stronger by the day.
Theresa May was widely criticised for cancelling at the last minute the vote she promised the UK parliament on the Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union. She knew the vote would go against her and so decided instead to go back once again to Brussels to try to wring some concessions from EU leaders that she could use to persuade parliament to change their minds and back her. Instead they gave her one more humiliating rebuff, while her Conservative colleagues organised a no-confidence vote in her leadership. She managed to win that vote only by promising not to lead the party into another general election, following her disastrous election performance last year that lost the government its previous majority.
With her standing undermined by over 100 of her own MPs voting against her and parliament still set against her deal, May remains in a state of denial.
She persists in holding tenaciously to her doomed deal, while ruling out the idea of holding another referendum – or “people’s vote” in the words of its proponents. And all the while the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no agreement at all – a “hard” Brexit – with all the threat of economic and security disruption this could bring, grows ever more likely.
It now appears that forging a deal that both EU and the UK parliament can agree on is a goal beyond the ability of any British prime minister to achieve. But at least May has the virtue of striving to achieve it. The official British opposition, the Labour Party, meanwhile remains shamefully silent on the practicalities of deal making with Brussels. The party has tabled six conditions that would basically mean Britain having all the benefits of EU membership, while still leaving the club. They know the EU would never agree to anything approaching such conditions. And with the party as divided as the ruling Conservatives over Brexit, it is clear this fantasy wish list is designed not a ]serious negotiating position, but merely to paper over the party’s internal divisions.
Labour remains solely focused on triggering a general election and taking power. But it knows that calling a no-confidence vote in parliament is unlikely to succeed in bringing down the government. Even Conservatives who oppose May will not want to risk an election putting Jeremy Corbyn into 10 Downing Street.
Labour’s stance is both cynically and self-serving. Rather than putting forward a workable alternative plan for negotiating a way out of the worst political crisis Britain has faced since the Second World War, the party stands Janus-faced on the sidelines, trying to appear both in favour of and against Brexit at the same time.
Theresa May has clearly shown that she is unable to solve this crisis alone. She should have long ago reached out to opposition parties to try to forge a common British political position on Brexit. This would have undercut the hard Brexiteers in her own party that want no understanding at all with the EU. But Labour has never offered her the least incentive to do so.
It is true that opposing the government is what opposition parties are supposed to do. But they are also obliged to put forward an alternative strategy that voters can judge them on. This is especially the case when the country faces political crises as greave as it does today and when the party says it is preparing for a general election.
The longer Labour avoids talking about the details of Brexit raises the suspicion that the leadership is not just trying to preserve the veneer of party unity by avoiding serious discussion of Brexit. As with the problem of anti-semitism within the party, Jeremy Corbyn appears uninterested in engaging seriously with the problem at all.
The current leadership of the Labour Party appeared to have no interest in discussing the practicalities of customs unions, the single-market and other dull but vital details of how Britain’s relationship with Europe will look in the years and decades to come. Corbyn and his shadow chancellor John McDonnell still seem to see themselves as leading a social movement mobilised to replace the capitalist mixed economy of Britain with the Marxist utopia they have dreamed of since their youth. These self-styled vanguards of the revolution show little interest in working to formulate a realistic political programme that will mitigate the pain of Brexit for the working people of Britain they claim to represent. They would prefer to see Britain crash out of the EU if that is what is required to discredit the government, bring about its collapse and hand them the keys of power.
Corbyn and McDonnell should remember the example of Clement Atlee, Britain’s most successful ever Labour prime minister. “Clem”, whose legacy they are keen to claim, formed a national government with his Conservative rival Winston Churchill knowing that only national unity would save Britain as it faced the peril of invasion in 1940. Today a willingness to set aside party and ideological agendas for the national good is needed just as urgently.