When Keir Starmer was made shadow secretary for Brexit, I was pleased. Finally, Labour would get serious about the topic of our times. Yet while Starmer has been impressive in the House, his appointment has still not been enough to halt confusion in regards to the Labour Party and its approach to Brexit.
The most recent relevant example of this was the palaver around whether Labour would or would not hold up for the triggering of Article 50. First up, what Jeremy Corbyn had to say on the matter. He laid out his four “Brexit Bottom Lines”, which were:
UK access to 500 million customers in Europe’s single market. No watering down of EU workplace rights. Guarantees on safeguarding consumers and the environment. Pledges on Britain picking up the tab for any EU capital investment lost by Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn, when asked if this meant Labour would hold up the triggering of Article 50 if necessary, responded:
“Sorry, but we live in a democracy and the Government has to be responsive to Parliament. It’s not my timetable so it’s up to her to respond.”
So far, so good. I probably would have had Corbyn add that she hadn’t consulted parliament before giving the March timetable, so double blah (or more articulate words to that effect). But from there, it got a little messy. The press predictably went into a tizzy about Labour trying to block Article 50 from being triggered, so Tom Watson thought it best to respond to this by saying:
“We want to protect workers’ rights, we want to protect companies’ right to trade in the single market, tariff-free, we want to support jobs, we want to make sure people don’t lose out, but we’re certainly not going to hold up Article 50 if we don’t get the deal.”
Okay, so someone should tell Watson how negotiations work: you say you’ll agree to something so long as your demands are met. Then, the other side can try and get you to wiggle on those terms and if all goes well, you reach a compromise position. However, this does not work if you say at the start, “This is what we want – but if we don’t get it, we’ll just completely fold on everything, don’t worry.” Doesn’t put you in much of a bargaining stance, really.
Then Corbyn’s team responded to Watson’s statement, not by saying Watson isn’t the leader and reiterating the line about May being in charge of the timetable, but rather this:
“We won’t be seeking to block Article 50, only amend or influence the government’s negotiating terms if they do not meet our red lines. Our support for invoking article 50 is unconditional, but we would seek to amend or influence the government’s negotiating terms.”
What I want to know now is: for Corbyn, are there Brexit “red lines” or are there not? If there isn’t, you might as well just tell everyone you’ll vote with the government regardless if you’re so scared of seeming anti-Brexit in any possible way.
I wish I could conclude this article with a summary of what I think Labour’s approach to Article 50 negotiation discussions in the House will be should the High Court decision stand. But actually, I genuinely can’t even harbour an educated guess at this point. Other than the obvious, I supppose: we’ll try and get some stuff in four areas we’ve identified, but if the government won’t bend then no big deal, we’ll just wave through any old negotiating position even it involves repealing the entirety of the social chapter.