Who Wants Brexit?
On Thursday afternoon, Theresa May passed her Queen’s speech with the DUP’s support. 323 MPs backed it and 309 opposed it. Theresa May was triumphant in the end. Corbyn said that “The Conservatives survived by the skin of their teeth today, supported by the DUP, but this is a government in chaos.” The Queen’s speech brought again into focus the divisions across parties on Brexit and the widespread belief that the UK should remain in the single market. This has also underlined the future difficulties that May might face in passing legislation relating to Brexit. More importantly, EU officials are even now considering that the UK might realise its mistake and reverse Brexit.
Labour also had a victory, since the government was forced to allow Northern Ireland women the right to have abortions in Great Britain, before MPs were about to vote on the amendment tabled by Labour MP Stella Creasy.
Other amendments for domestic policy and Brexit were defeated. A Labour amendment to end the public sector cap, increase the minimum wage and taxes on the wealthy failed to pass, while forty-nine Labour MPs voted against Corbyn and in favour of an amendment to keep Britain in the single market. The amendment failed to pass, with 322 MPs voting against it and 101 MPs from different parties supporting it.
Three Labour MPs Andy Slaughter, Ruth Cadbury and Catherine West were fired by Corbyn after their vote. Corbyn had requested his MPs not to support the amendment, because the party doesn’t support the proposal that Britain should retain its full membership of the single market.
These Labour MPs, backbenchers, the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru backed the amendment, which supported a softer Brexit than that of the government. The amendment to the Queen’s speech called for membership of the customs union and of the single market and for the devolved nations to be considered and respected during the Brexit negotiations. It also supported the view that there can be no exit without a deal, stressing the need to have a parliamentary vote on the final Brexit outcome and establish transitional agreements.
Corbyn and Brexit
The frontbench MPs fired by Corbyn, had sought to keep their promises to voters to secure jobs and a Brexit deal that is fair to all, so they felt that the best way to pursue this was by supporting the amendment on Brexit. A Labour MP explained that “This is a point of principle for me and I felt bound to honour the commitment I had made to voters. I was aware that, as I was breaking the whip, I could not retain my frontbench role.”
The Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said that Corbyn’s position was damaging his image, especially when Corbyn has given hope to so many young people. Farron said that “Millions of people who voted for Jeremy Corbyn were hoping for a new approach to Brexit. They will be feeling utterly betrayed tonight that he has yet again failed to oppose this government’s extreme Brexit agenda. On the most important issue of the day, Jeremy Corbyn ordered his MPs to sit on their hands.”
While Labour was in power, Corbyn has been one of the most rebellious Labour MPs, voting against the whip hundreds of times, but when it comes to his own MPs rebelling against him, they seem to get fired immediately. This is to a certain degree ridiculous when one recognises that Brexit has always caused divisions across different parties, and that it’s difficult to sustain one view that would express a particular party.
James Cleverly, the Conservative MP, might have said that “When it comes to Brexit, Labour are in total chaos. There is deep division at the heart of the Labour party on the most crucial issue facing the country today – they still can’t agree on the fundamentals and would get the worst Brexit deal at the highest price.” But, this can be seen in many parties. Lord Heseltine has consistently warned about the economic consequences of Brexit.
Corbyn who is committed to keeping all the benefits of the single market, but not retaining its membership sounds a lot like many of the Brexiteers and Tories. As former UKip leader Nigel Farage said on Twitter: “Corbyn showing his true Brexit colours. He’s almost a proper chap.”
The difference is that Labour accepts the result of the UK referendum and is pragmatic about Brexit, unlike others. As the party’s shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer said, you cannot have membership of the single market unless you are in the EU: “Our manifesto is clear. We want to retain the benefits of the single market and the customs union.” Corbyn and Starmer recognise that there can be no access to the single market unless you accept the EU’s position on free movement. EU officials have repeatedly emphasised that access to the single market requires acceptance of all four freedoms: freedom of movement of goods, people, services and capital over borders.
In a similar fashion, the chancellor Philip Hammond, said that the UK would not remain in the single market or the customs union, but it will pursue a deal that is equivalent to being in the single market or the customs union.
But the problem with many parties in the UK is that they remain ambivalent about Brexit. As one ambassador of an EU state put it: “It is very inconvenient in my job that I cannot tell my capital what kind Brexit either of the main parties wishes to pursue. There is no clear information, just information on what politicians will not accept.” Many EU politicians are now suggesting that the UK might come to realise that Brexit is just too difficult, costly, and impossible and that they might decide to reverse it. And this might be okay, since no one in the UK really wants a hard Brexit, or has any idea what it means—and hard Brexit might be the only option available, according to European council president Donald Tusk.