One of the more interesting moments already in the nascent race to see who becomes the next leader of the opposition was when Jess Phillips appeared to suggest that Labour could campaign to rejoin the EU, if the conditions were right – and then, a few days later, appeared to retract this possibility. What the Labour Party collectively hopes is that Brexit, now that it is definitely going ahead, will cease to be an issue for them. I think they are fooling themselves. Furthermore, they have painted themselves into a corner with Brexit that I can’t see a way out of.
If the Labour Party embraces Brexit fully, as some of the Corbyn gang are pushing for, this comes with all sorts of problems. It would make it difficult for Labour to criticise the government whenever something goes wrong in the negotiations, or indeed, the post-negotiation period. They can try and pull the “Brexit would have been way better under our watch” line, but that wasn’t believable during the election campaign, or come to think of it, at any point since the 2016 EU referendum. They also have “Remainers revenge” to consider. A huge majority of Labour members want to remain in the EU and without Corbyn the saviour in charge any longer (and the inevitable disappointment any successor is bound to bring to this cohort) I could see a lot of them going Green or even Lib Dem if Labour embraces full-on Brexity-ness. If the Tories are going to hold onto a huge majority anyway, why not?
Yet becoming the rejoin party would be riddled with problems as well. Labour would be painted as both undemocratic and living in the past, fighting old battles. It would give them way more leeway to criticise the government’s handling of our post-Brexit future – but at the cost of very possibly further alienating a huge group of voters they need to win back to stand any chance at all of winning either of the next two general elections. The chances of Labour sinking further into a bubble would increase.
Finally, being neutral on the topic isn’t going to work either. They may hope, like the prime minister does ironically enough, that Brexit disappears from the public view at the end of this month. While possible, I think it’s unlikely. The negotiations will be front page news and when we really leave at the end of 2020 – assuming we do and the there isn’t some fudge found to keep the transition going under a different name – that will be news as well. Labour’s fence-sitting on Brexit is one of the main reasons everyone can agree on as to why Labour did so badly in December. Carrying on with the same strategy looks like madness.
It is possible that everything falls right for Labour on Brexit and they somehow accidentally get it right. But if that happens, it will be accidental and entirely down to luck.