A repeated theme from the Labour frontbench for many months now has been that a second referendum on Brexit would be a terrible idea, and that if May crashes and burns on the rocks of the negotiations, we should have a general election instead. The problem is, they really haven’t thought this one through. Like, at all.
In the 2017 general election, people looked to the Tories to have a plan on Brexit while Labour were given a bit of a free pass on the subject. There were several reasons for this, not least of which was that no one gave Labour any real chance of winning the election, thus Labour could act as someone to just vote for if you wanted to vote against the Tories. You didn’t need to wonder how Jeremy Corbyn would handle Brexit, because, hey, he had no shot at winning.
If we had a general election in late-2018, early-2019, things would be very, very different for two big reasons. One is that the impending nature of Brexit has brought the topic into much sharper focus for people. A 2018 or 2019 GE would be about Brexit and little else because of this. The second reason is a direct result of the 2017 general election result – Corbyn would walk in the favourite, and as such his policy around Brexit would be put under a microscope. He couldn’t fudge it any longer; in a general election campaign held before March 2019, he would need to have something that sounded like a well-thought out plan. He would basically be asked again and again “How will you handle this situation that has reached a chaotic climax differently if we made you prime minister?” He would need a very good answer to win.
Labour would have to have a solid position on the question of second referendum or no second referendum – going solidly either way would cost him votes, but he couldn’t fudge this now. If he was going to push ahead with Brexit – which again would lose him votes in many places, possibly gain him or at least hold onto some in others – on what terms would he seek to settle? Again, it wouldn’t necessarily need to be that well-thought out – but it would need to sound well-thought out to the average voter at the very least.
Finally, if the point of having another general election now is to resolve the Brexit impasse, what sense would it make to go into it with the two main parties having essentially the same position on the subject? Labour hopes it can run on the idea of “Look, the Tories screwed up the negotiations – but if you let us in, we’ll do them way better”. I just don’t think that is going to fly for them, I really don’t. Further, what would the result of such an election tell us? If we ended up with another hung parliament – very likely – what would that give anyone instruction to do then? And remember, all this is happening with the last vestiges of the Article 50 period burning out.
I’m not telling Labour what their policy on Brexit should be. I’m simply saying that if they want to agitate for an early general election, they should realise beforehand that they are going to need one.