LONDON—The more damaging the fallout from Britain’s clumsy efforts to leave the European Union, the greater the chance that an angry population will sweep the Conservative government from power and embrace a truly radical alternative.
That’s not to say Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s most proudly socialist leader in generations, is seeking to destroy the British economy in order to seize power. It’s just that there’s a sizeable potential upside to that scenario for him. Like the prime minister, he is in the impossible position of trying to hold together his coalition of voters, which stretches from Britain’s pro-Brexit former industrial heartlands to the Europe-worshiping neighborhoods of North London.
So far, Corbyn’s position has been euphemistically described as “constructive ambiguity.” Now that Theresa May’s Brexit compromise deal has gone down to the most cataclysmic defeat in Britain’s long parliamentary history, many of Corbyn’s fellow Labour lawmakers feel the time is right to step in and try to stop Brexit.
May’s 230-vote humiliation makes an economically catastrophic “No Deal” exit more likely, as Britain is now just two months away from leaving Europe without any trade deals or cross-border cooperation—which would cause severe economic disruption.
In the hours since the House of Commons gasped at the scale of the defeat, Corbyn has not even mentioned the prospect of delaying Brexit or holding a second referendum that could overturn the result of the 2016 vote.
At a quarter past midnight, Neil Coyle, a Labour member of parliament (MP) who is an enthusiastic backer of a second referendum, exploded on Twitter, attacking Corbyn as “the worst bullshit merchant ever.”
David Lammy, another Labour MP from London, where the campaign for a ‘People’s Vote’ is most popular, was only slightly more polite in an interview on the BBC.
“If he vacillates and sits on the fence, I’m afraid he’s gonna to get splinters in places he doesn’t want,” he said. “He will be effectively cooperating with a Brexit that’s running into the sand, and standing with Theresa May.”
Instead of setting out his future position on a second referendum, Corbyn tabled a motion of no confidence in the government to be held on Wednesday. If May were to lose, she would be ousted from No. 10, but her critics in the Conservative party—in a cabal of Brexiteers known as the ERG—and Northern Ireland’s DUP have signaled their support in this vote.
The People’s Vote campaign announced on Wednesday that 71 Labour MPs had joined their fight, but the party leadership sought to downplay the significance of that development, with Corbyn’s No. 2, John McDonnell, incorrectly claiming that a similar number had already committed to a second vote.
The truth is that Corbyn has been against European integration since the 1970s. As recently as the Labour leadership contest in 2015—in which Corbyn secured a shock victory after decades on the party’s Left-wing fringe—he argued that he would campaign to leave the EU “if we are going to get an imposition of free market policies across Europe.”
He has long described the EU as a capitalist club primarily run in the interests of financiers. “The imposition of a bankers’ Europe on the people of this continent will endanger the cause of socialism in the United Kingdom and in any other country,” he argued in the House of Commons in 1993.
Corbyn has argued that state aid regulations and EU diktats on balancing domestic budgets would interfere with the policy implementation of a truly left-wing government.
In a post-Brexit government, Corbyn’s Labour would have the conditions and ability to implement the radical reforms that MPs on the left of the party have dreamt of for decades.
His Labour government would seek to re-introduce nationalization, bring in a 50% top rate of tax, end curbs on trade unions, push nuclear disarmament and recognize Palestine as a state. Many of Corbyn’s positions are considerably to the Left of U.S. figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
One of Corbyn’s close allies on the left of the party, Chris Williamson, said economic disruption would make the election of a socialist Labour government more likely.
“We’re obviously not seeking to have a situation where there is ‘No Deal,’ but if that were to happen then it would desperately need an interventionist Labour government with a radical agenda to address the consequences, the implications of that. And I think we could put a program that would be attractive to the public at large,” Williamson told The Daily Beast. “In the event of the U.K. leaving the EU with no deal and then a subsequent election, I think those arguments would have even more resonance with people.”
He also said, it would be less important if the economy was damaged by Brexit because Labour would be best placed to respond: “We could afford actually for the economy to diminish in size and feel if we redistributed the income of wealth fairly we could raise the living standards of the 99 percent.”
While the left of the party sees a route to a socialist government in Britain, Corbyn and his leadership team are vastly outnumbered within the Labour party by politicians and members who would much prefer to stay close to the EU, and possibly overturn the Brexit vote in a second referendum. More than 70 percent of party members would like to see a second referendum, and senior Labour figures in the shadow cabinet known as “frontbenchers,” like Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer, continue to push that prospect.
Indeed—against Corbyn’s wishes—the Labour party voted at its annual conference last September to pursue a Brexit policy that would first call for an election if May’s deal did not pass Labour’s tests. If Corbyn fails to secure that election, the policy states that he is bound to consider all other options that remain on the table, including a second referendum.
Just like May’s deal, however, it is currently hard to see how there are enough votes in the House of Commons for a second referendum. Corbyn may accept calls to support some sort of motion for a second referendum, but he is likely to push for its success with the same lack of enthusiasm that characterised his supposed Remain campaigning during the original Brexit referendum.
That would leave May once again seeking support from Labour MPs who might be willing to disobey Corbyn in order to back a version of her deal that would avoid a ‘No Deal’ Brexit.
Williamson told The Daily Beast that he was confident May would not be able to peel off enough of his parliamentary colleagues to secure a majority for her deal, no matter how many times she brought it back. He warned that any Labour politician thinking of voting to save May’s deal would face being kicked out of parliament by a primary challenge from their local Labour party.
“I am absolutely sure of that. I mean, there will be a few rebels I’m sure on the Labour benches who will go the other way, but they have to answer to their own members for that; some will find themselves on the wrong end of the deselection process,” he said.
If the Labour bloc does hold firm against the deal, the prospect of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit will continue to rise. That disorderly exit from the EU would bring the threat of violent short-term economic ructions and a run on the pound, raising the prospect of a Conservative government on its knees.
Steve Howell, Corbyn’s former deputy director of strategy and communications, said the prime minister had mishandled Brexit so catastrophically that she might be helping to pave the way for a radical left-wing government.
“May’s spent too much time pandering to ERG and virtually none until recently talking to Labour MPs—and even now she hasn’t spoken to the Labour front bench,” he told The Daily Beast. “She’s so obsessed with preventing Corbyn getting into Downing Street she’s actually made it more likely. Whatever happened to the guile of the British Establishment?”