Corbyn is offering Remainers a shot at what they want - they should take it

You get as much from Jeremy Corbyn's tone as you do from what he says. When it's an issue he cares about, like austerity or foreign policy, his expressions clench up into a little face-fist and he hammers away with no moral equivocation. When it isn't, you get this passive, restless approach, like a child being dragged around the shops to pick a school uniform.

You could practically smell that lack of interest today in his latest update to Labour's ever-evolving Brexit policy via an op-ed in the Guardian. But, if you could get to the end of it - it's not a gripping read - you'd have a pretty good idea of what Labour's plan is for the election campaign.

If Labour wins, they'll negotiate a softer Brexit, then hold a referendum on it. Corbyn himself will stay neutral in that referendum. He doesn't say that last part outright. As usual, and in a way which - it bears repeating - is quite profoundly tiresome, you have to deduce what the Labour leader will do by what he doesn't say rather than what he does. But that seems the clear message.

For Labour Remainers it's a disaster. And they're right to be outraged. Labour is a Remain party going through the most seismic moment in British history with deep threats to the lives of the worst off. And yet their leadership has been largely missing in action.

But if you're a Remainer outside of Labour, it's not actually that bad. Would Corbyn honestly be such an asset in a referendum campaign? Not really. He wasn't last time. He's an asset of sorts in campaigns he cares about, but he won't care about this one.

It might even be helpful. If the referendum is happening at all, it's because he is prime minister. Having him distant from the campaign might discourage protest votes against the government. Think back to 2016: Remain would almost certainly have done better if David Cameron was not associated with it.

By staying neutral, Corbyn also gets himself out of the bizarre problem of having to negotiate a deal and then campaign against it.

Of all Corbyn's errors, this is the one least of his own making. The policy of negotiating a deal and then holding a referendum on it is perfectly logical. The first step minimises the damage of Brexit in the worst-case scenario and the second tries to prevent it altogether in the best.

But when you translate that into an doorstep message - of striking a deal and then campaigning against it - it sounds quite mad. Staying neutral sidesteps that issue entirely.

Remainers have spent years being mocked and ignored by Corbyn supporters as centrists and God-knows-what else. After all that, and Corbyn's other moral failures, it is hard to see what's on offer even when it's ultimately perfectly satisfactory. But this is actually pretty decent. It's an offer to the head, not the heart. But there's nothing particularly wrong with that.

Corbyn is providing a route to Remain. It is really the only viable route available.

Yesterday, Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson made a speech at the Liberal Democrat conference on what she'd do as prime minister if she got a majority. That would indeed be very nice, but it is not going to happen. The Lib Dems are not going to win the next election. Nor are the Greens. The SNP and Plaid are not in contention. No outright Remain party can secure executive power except as a coalition partner to Labour.

It is simply crazy for Remain parties to launch strong attacks on Labour where there is a danger it would allow the Tories or Brexit party to win in that seat. On a basic strategic level, it makes no sense. 

Corbyn has offered enough to stave off a Remain attack. That, after all, was the point of voting against Labour in the European elections: to send a message. It worked. Now Remainers are threatening to allow their anger at Corbyn to derail their own success at shifting his position. He's offered a shot at Remain - not as a movement, but an outcome. They should take it.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Week in Review: A deal is as unlikely as ever

The chatter begins. It always starts quietly at first, then slowly builds up. Maybe there is hope, after all. Maybe a deal with Europe can be done. Maybe Boris Johnson is the man to do it.

Then come the news reports. The prime minister is startled by the implications of no-deal. The DUP are softening on regulatory separation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The Europeans are willing to change or erase the backstop.

It's becoming almost a tradition. Expectation builds, slowly and from multiple angles, reaches a crescendo and then finally breaks on the cold, horrible shores of reality.
Reports now suggest the Europeans would accept changes to the backstop. But these would amount to the backstop in all but name: regulatory and customs alignment as an insurance policy against the failure of 'alternative arrangements'.

The suggestions of a DUP shift are also overstated. The maintenance of alignment in the UK is more important to the party than Brexit. The latter is a key policy, the former is a near-Biblical historical commitment. They have arguably been the most consistent of all the Brexit camps since the referendum. Even when many of the ERG hardliners backed Theresa May's deal on the third attempt, they held firm.

Others insist that now Johnson has been blocked from pursuing no-deal, he's really serious about getting one. He would apparently be able to 'sell' it better than his predecessor. But after the events of the last two weeks, even that latter proposition looks dubious. He's not the master salesman he was made out to be.

And then there is the timetable. Even the most positive reports concede that the Europeans have not been shown a viable plan by the UK yet. It's far from clear that Downing Street is capable of constructing that plan. If it somehow could, it wouldn't allow it to emerge before the Conservative party conference, because all hell would break loose. But there's just over a week between the end of the conference and the crucial EU summit where the deal would need to be agreed in mid-October.

Plans for a deal of this complexity and importance can't just be unveiled at a summit. They need time to be discussed, negotiated and agreed. The timing just doesn't work. So even if there was a viable plan in place, you'd still be looking at an extension of Article 50, which takes Johnson past his self-imposed red line.

Coming back to the Commons with a deal - any deal, even one without the backstop - would also sabotage Johnson's electoral prospects. Many in the ERG and the Brexit Party now view any deal as a betrayal, quite apart from whatever the arrangements are on the Irish border.

If he lost the subsequent vote, the swerve back to no-deal would be difficult. He would not be able to regain the image he currently enjoys as someone prepared to embrace the full spiritual mission of Brexit. He'd be turned into May Mark II.

So to even consider this course he'd really need to be confident that he could get it through the Commons. And there's little reason to think he would. He would struggle to get the ERG on board. The DUP are extremely unlikely to vote for it. That means that he needs to find enough pro-deal Labour MPs to make up the numbers.

There had been hints that might be possible. A new group of pro-deal MPs, headed by Stephen Kinnock, are agitating for another crack at May's deal. But, as Chaminda Jayenetti wrote for the site this week, the deal they'd be offered by Johnson would be even worse than what they got under May.

The assurances on staying aligned with worker and environmental rights would be gone. The future relationship document would be amended to rule out customs union or single market membership in future. The fact that the rest of the UK would be able to move away from European standards, leaving Northern Ireland behind, clearly entails a move towards American deregulation in a bid to secure a deal with Donald Trump.

And despite their protestations, the Labour pro-deal contingent have, when it comes down to it, voted against this kind of outcome. People like Lisa Nandy or Caroline Flint, who have pointedly rejected Remain, have almost spotless voting records in blocking Tory Brexit deals. That deal would now be put forward in a less attractive way, by a leader they find more offensive than May. Whichever angle you look at the problem from, the votes are hard to find.

Nothing is impossible and in British politics things now change very quickly. But you would need an optimism close to pathology in order to believe that a deal was in any way likely: the incentives are not there, the ideas are not there and the votes are not there. The rest is just hopeful chatter.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Bercow resignation: He was the right man in the right place at the right time

John Bercow is standing down as Speaker. The news shuddered through the Commons in a wave when he announced it, with both sides in the Brexit debate quickly taking on board what it meant for the fight to come. He'll resign on October 31st, right after the Article 50 deadline. 

His statement was emotional. He looked up to the balcony, where his family sat, with tears in his eyes and thanked them for their support. But it was also fiercely political.

"This is a wonderful place," he said, "filled overwhelmingly by people who are motivated by their notion of the national interest, by their perception of the public good, and by their duty - not as delegates, but as representatives - to do what they believe is right for our country. We degrade this parliament at our peril."

The message to the government, coming just hours before a prorogation designed to shut parliament up, was clear. And they heard it. Immediately afterwards, the Commons rose to give him a long standing ovation. But the government benches did not stand. They remained resolutely in their seats, heads down.

Very few things have gone right in the Brexit period. But there was some kind of alignment of the political stars to deliver us an activist Speaker in the chair when the government worked actively to dismiss, degrade and eventually suspend parliament.

He wasn't perfect. There are allegations of bullying against him towards staff. And he did, as his detractors claim, clearly bask in the limelight. But history is weird. It's not composed of saints coming down from on high when needed. Sometimes it just puts the right person in the right place at the right time. And that's what we got.

That notion of an activist Speaker was routinely disparaged by his enemies in parliament and the press. They criticised him for 'politicising' the role and issued pearl-clutching statements about the damage his approach would do for future generations. It is a historically and constitutionally illiterate view.

On January 4th 1642, King Charles marched into the Commons with armed guards in an attempt to arrest five members of parliament. It was an attempt by the executive, back then in the form of the monarchy, to close down parliament as a threat to its rule.

The king didn't know what they looked like, so he asked the then-Speaker, William Lenthall, to point them out to him. His reply helped change the constitutional structure of England and was a key moment in the history of liberal democracy.

"I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place," he said, "but as this House is pleased to direct me".

It was a line in the sand. It marked a barrier over which the king was not entitled to tread. He belonged to parliament, not the government.

In the years that followed, many people were killed in the battle for parliamentary sovereignty. The Civil War didn't settle it. Oliver Cromwell, who helped lead the parliamentary side, later turned it into a submissive plaything himself. But that basic idea eventually took hold.

And that is the idea which Bercow ensured stayed alive over the last few months. The Brexit referendum was like an alien substance in the body politic. It was popular democracy with a huge mandate. But it also came with no details about how it should be implemented. Should it be soft, hard or no-deal Brexit? And what about all the countless thousands of choices that would have to be made within those broad categories?

May's response was to act as if only the government had the God-given right to interpret the result. From the very start she acted to sideline parliament. She tried to prevent it having a role in whether to trigger Article 50, to threaten the Lords, to refuse to publish legal advice and then ignore the Commons when it instructed her to do so, and to ensure that the only choice MPs got once she secured her deal was of that or no deal at all - an option no respectable member of parliament would ever have countenanced

As it became clear what was happening, Bercow made sure parliament had a voice. In January this year, he selected an amendment by then-Tory MP Dominic Grieve allowing parliamentary scrutiny of the government if May's deal failed. It was completely against convention, but he recognised the need for MPs to have a voice on the most important issue facing the country.

He did the same again when May tried to put her deal down over and over again, in an effort to bludgeon the Commons into submission. And then again this month, in the most dramatic way possible, when he allowed MPs to use an emergency Standing Order 24 debate to take control of the Commons and prevent the government forcing through no-deal.

These were the modern versions of Lenthall refusing the king. Convention was certainly being bent and remoulded. Both sides were doing that. But there was a crucial difference.

The government was bending the constitutional rules in order to silence MPs and reduce the scrutiny of executive power. Bercow was bending them in response to that attack, in order to give the people elected by the public a voice.

The 'betraying the will of the people' accusation was scary. It was enough to silence many people - in the street, at social events, online, in the media, and especially in parliament. But Bercow had the strength of conviction and the basic don't-give-a-damn instinct to stand up to it. If he had not, things could have been so much worse. MPs would be powerless to stop no-deal. And worse, the government would be able to damage parliament's standing in a way that might not ever be fixed.

The prospect of a Brexit debate without him in future is troubling, especially given that after the next election there is still likely to be a hung parliament. But he had, at least, one final trick: By resigning now, he ensured that it would be this parliament, facing a government with no majority, that decided the next Speaker. So, with any luck, the tradition of an activist speaker will continue.

The newspapers tomorrow will spend countless pages attacking him. But later, when this period is viewed by historians, he will be held in very high regard indeed.

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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