The Labour Party has watched Prime Minister Theresa May get kicked around by European Chief Negotiator for Brexit Michel Barnier and her own fraying Cabinet since June of this year. While the party welcomed its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as a conquering hero at its annual party conference in Brighton in late September for his surprise general election gains, May’s prize for forming a coalition government was the public chance for Conservatives to negotiate Brexit.
The Labour Party stayed in the shadows during these negotiations, and their position on Brexit is still ambiguous. As the opposition, they duly oppose everything Theresa May and her government do, but they have yet to offer their vision of a post-Brexit UK besides simply keeping ties with the EU. Corbyn, a left-wing Labour leader, was seen as a lukewarm Remain supporter during the referendum back in June 2016, which could explain his lack of eagerness to tout a softer Brexit.
Corbyn, so far, has not needed to take a firm position on Brexit. Vagueness is attracting both Euroskeptic and pro-EU Labour members. Additionally, not publicizing Labour division over Brexit keeps national media attention on the struggles of May and her party, a winning strategy as of now. However positive May’s hardship might seem to Labour right now, she risks totally losing control to hard-Brexiters, an outcome Corbyn needs to avoid. Corbyn’s popularity earned him a grace period from his party and allowed him to focus on domestic affairs. In the past two Prime Minister’s Questions, where MP’s can freely question the Prime Minister, Corbyn focused on domestic issues, not Brexit, nor was the issue spoken much about at the Labour conference.
Theresa May left a European Council summit this Thursday and Friday with little to show for the concessions she offered in her much-awaited Florence speech on September 22, such as saying the UK will “honour commitments” in terms of money it will pay to leave, recognize a transition period “around two years,” and codify rights for EU citizens currently living in the UK. However, the European Council concluded the UK has not made “sufficient progress” and will not move onto a post-Brexit trade deal until it is satisfied with the final divorce bill. May said she deems €20 billion enough, but estimates put the EU asking price at around €60 billion.
May is in a political fight with her split Cabinet, primarily with Brexit secretary and chief negotiator David Davies and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who are pulling her more to the right every day. Friday, French president Emmanuel Macron attacked Davies for reportedly preparing a plan to present to the UK cabinet, which would highlight positive aspects of a no-deal situation, or “the Brexit cliff edge,” as Politico calls it.
As May is pulled farther and farther right by her Cabinet, now is the time Labour must offer their more positive, softer Brexit alternative. It might be more difficult than instinctually attacking Conservatives, but is the right thing to do for Britain. It would offer some calmness to businesses who are getting nervous about May’s issues with Brussels and the beginning talk of “no-deal” from Brexit-hardliners in the Cabinet. Furthermore, an actual Labour position can start to pull May back to the left and give her more options on the table when negotiating with the EU. Keep in mind, May does not seem to want to go any further right. She was not recently able to answer if she would vote Leave if another referendum was held today.
A great way for Labour to fight hard-Brexiters is through the Great Repeal Bill which would transfer all EU law into UK law. May was forced to withdraw the bill after fierce Conservative opposition, but Labour could fight the bill with soft Brexit amendments.
Now is the time for Jeremy Corbyn to set an alternative to May’s Brexit that would longer the transition period and maintain the UK’s beneficial ties to the EU, such as the customs union, single market, and the European Court of Justice. He does not need to politically, but Britain risks the chance of leaving the EU without a deal which could decimate British business in the EU and stop all flights from the UK to all 27 European Union countries. In these troubled times, now is not the time to play partisan politics. It will not be easy and might cause dissent among his party, but Jeremy Corbyn must value the British people during a time when politically-weak Theresa May is losing control.