Iain Macwhirter: How post-Brexit could well work to Corbyn’s advantage
JEREMY CORBYN has put Labour on a General Election footing. He told the Labour conference in Liverpool that Theresa May, despite her promises, is preparing to “cut and run” in 2017. Bring it on, he says. Are turkeys voting early for Christmas?
Mr Corbyn has been given plaudits for delivering a rather decent conference speech. Given Labour’s dire opinion polls, a divided party, his charisma bypass, fear of immigration, equivocation on Brexit and so on, he might seem to have as much chance of being elected prime minister as of being elected leader of Nato. Yet, while Labour might be destroyed in an early election, a later one might not be such a disaster. If the next UK General Election is in 2020 (as it should be under the Fixed Term Parliament Act), Labour might be defeated but not by enough to displace Mr Corbyn.
Fast forward a couple of years. Article 50 has belatedly been declared after much confusion. Mrs May pushes Brexit through Parliament using the Royal Prerogative to prevent MPs having a say on issues such as UK membership of the European Single Market post-Brexit. There is an almighty row as opposition MPs unite to condemn this arbitrary exercise of undemocratic power.
Labour, Liberal Democrats, the SNP and a group of Tories led by the former Chancellor Ken Clarke have claimed that Parliament has been usurped by a “Brexit dictatorship”. They say MPs, not Number 10, should decide whether or not Britain remains in the single market after Brexit. SNP and Labour MPs have been working together on a Claim of Right for Westminster, demanding that the autocratic “Queen May” listens to “the sovereign will of the British people”.
Meanwhile, the Conservative Cabinet is deeply split over trading relations with the EU. Brussels has said that Labour can have “qualified access” to the single market, but only if it accepts “qualified free movement”; that is, migrants must be free to apply for UK jobs. Ministers such as Chancellor Philip Hammond say this is sensible as immigration from the EU has fallen by 50 per cent since the Brexit referendum.
Indeed, Ms May is under pressure from the tabloid press to “stop the rot” as migration from non-EU countries has increased since June 2016. As this is largely non-white immigration, voters in northern English cities say their culture continues to be eroded by people who do not share British values. Suddenly, EU migration is no longer the central issue.
Meanwhile, attempts by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox to secure preferential terms for Britain under the rules of the World Trade Organisation’ (WTO) have been a failure. The WTO will not accept Britain’s trading privileges, which applied under the single market, should continue when Britain leaves the EU and insists they have to be renegotiated. Countries have already started imposing provisional tariffs.
With the IMF warning about a collapse in world trade, this was the worst time for Britain to disentangle itself from the stability of the single market. The economic buoyancy that appeared to follow the 2016 Brexit vote and the effective devaluation of the pound are a distant memory. Inflation has risen to double figures for the first time in 25 years as the weak pound has made imports of essential consumer goods expensive.
The decision of the Japanese car giant, Nissan, to move production of the second-generation Juke to Romania in 2018 was a massive blow to Sunderland and the entire north east of England. The City of London was rocked by the departure of investment bankers Goldman Sachs to Frankfurt. The US firm insisted it still wanted to do business in Britain but that the failure of the UK Government to negotiate a continuation of the financial services “passport”, which allows banks to deal in European debt, meant they had no choice but to relocate their European headquarters to the eurozone.
Britain has been cut off from Europe but has not reconnected with the world. For 40 years, its trading relations were negotiated by civil servants in Brussels so it is unsurprising that Whitehall has had trouble “taking back control”. In a world riven by trade disputes, economic dumping and currency wars, it’s hard to get sensible deals on the table. Australia, New Zealand and Canada have said they are eager to get secure trading relations with Britain but that it will take several years. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s, unfortunate remark about “ex-colonies thumbing their noses at the Queen’s Commonwealth” has not helped. Nor has the fact Brussels has insisted any trade deals these countries negotiate with the EU must not apply to Britain.
In Scotland, discontent with Brexit has come to a head. The Fraser of Allander Institute’s warning that Brexit could lead to cuts of £1.6 billion in Scottish spending has turned out to be an underestimate. The Scottish tax base has shrunk as EU migration has all but stopped. Since Scottish spending depends increasingly on tax revenues raised directly in Scotland, rather than through the old Barnett Formula, this has led to the abandonment of social care.
Scotland’s unemployment rate has soared as council cuts have deepened. The NHS is in crisis as doctors and medical staff have left for the EU, where they enjoy better pay and conditions. Labour’s new leader, Neil Findlay, has joined the First Minister to demand Westminster stop the “financial asphyxiation” of Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon says a second independence referendum “cannot be ruled out”. Mr Corbyn has become a minor celebrity thanks to the TV remake of the Peter Seller’s character, Chauncey Gardner, in the film Being There. Gardner was a kind of idiot savant. The Labour leader’s gnomic utterances and occasional bumbling are seen as a sort of authenticity in an age of political spin, especially by so-called Millennials. Mr Corbyn’s allotment featured in the 2018 Chelsea Flower Show and the Labour Party has made a small fortune from marketing “Jeremy’s Jam”, used in the 2019 Even Greater British Bake Off on BBC Three.
Meanwhile, the widespread portrayal of Mrs May as a humourless, disciplinarian 1950s headmistress, following her unpopular decision to restore grammar schools in England, has been condemned as “sexist” by women’s groups. Some commentators start to believe the “Euro Bloc” of Labour/SNP/Liberal Democrat MPs could defeat the Tories in the 2020 General Election, months away.
If the Euro Bloc wins it promises a referendum on joining the single currency under new terms. Only four years since the 2016 referendum it looks like Brexageddon again. Mr Corbyn’s popularity in his party has never been higher as he is dubbed by columnist Owen Jones “the most successful loser in British politics”.