As October 31 approaches, yet another deadline for Britain’s departure from the European Union is upon us. Yet this time around, it’s quite possible that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will end up losing his legal and diplomatic battles yet winning the electoral war. If Johnson does have ask for another extension to Article 50, and thus delay Brexit, the political consequences will hinge on one crucial factor. Are hard-line Eurosceptics going to hold Johnson responsible for not keeping his promise to “get Brexit done” by the end of October? Or will they accept Johnson’s claim that a shabby alliance of judges, MPs, and EU officials have prevented him from implementing “the will of the people”?
In the first scenario, a snap election could work out very badly for Johnson, as he leaks votes to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. If the second plays out, he can still hope to win a majority on a hard-right platform, holding out the prospect of a no-deal exit without actually having to follow through on it before he secures a fresh mandate. If the opposition vote is divided between several parties, Johnson won’t have to match — let alone surpass — Theresa May’s performance in 2017.
The course of British politics over the next few weeks and months is murky and unpredictable. But the fact that Johnson is even in a place where his strategy could seem viable owes a great deal to the choices made by Britain’s liberal center since 2017.
The outcome of the 2017 general election confronted them with a stark choice. They could either focus on stopping Brexit — or at least mitigating its potential consequences — or else continue their efforts to oust Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. However, the partisans of liberal centrism refused to make that choice and instead carried on trying to do both at once. In fact, when came to shove, they consistently prioritized attacking the Labour leadership, at the expense of forging a broad alliance against Theresa May or Boris Johnson. The result has been to weaken the Labour Party — and the beneficiaries have been the most unyielding zealots in the pro-Brexit camp.
The liberal center in Britain is made up of several different components: Labour’s anti-Corbyn right wing; the Liberal Democrats; the Guardian newspaper and its sister title, the Observer; sundry figures with a public platform (lawyers, journalists, and academics, not to mention actors and comedians — the erstwhile satirist Armando Iannucci now faithfully regurgitates lines fed to him by Alastair Campbell, the spin doctor whose duplicity inspired Iannucci’s show The Thick of It). The term itself shouldn’t be taken at face value. For all their talk of “liberal values,” the Labour right and the Lib Dems have a much weaker record of opposing coercive policies like detention without trial and sweeping electronic surveillance than left-wing politicians such as Corbyn, John McDonnell, and Diane Abbott. And while they pride themselves on occupying the center ground, that position comes with an unspoken caveat: centrists will always extend an open hand to their right flank but a closed fist to their left.
There have been two traumatic events for liberal centrists in the past few years: the Leave vote in June 2016, and Labour’s unexpectedly strong performance in the general election twelve months later. They had greeted Jeremy Corbyn’s accession to the Labour leadership as a moment of madness that was sure to prove short-lived. Instead, Labour under Corbyn managed its best performance since 2001, with the biggest increase in vote share for either of the two main parties since 1945.
The centrists now had to face one undeniable fact, whether they liked it or not: unless Corbyn decided to step down, he would remain in his position until the next general election. Another leadership challenge from the Labour right, like Owen Smith’s in 2016, was certain to be a failure. The Labour membership believed that the 2017 general election had vindicated their decision to keep Corbyn in his place the previous year. Even if the polling figures for Labour were looking bad — which wasn’t the case until the past few months — they could still point to the dramatic turnaround over the course of the last campaign as reason to keep faith with Corbyn. Only a heavy defeat for Labour in a fresh election was likely to change things.
This had some obvious implications for Brexit. The deadline for the United Kingdom’s departure was March 2019; the next general election was due to be held in 2022. Either Brexit would run its course before voters went to the polls again; or else there would be an early poll because the parliament elected in 2017 was unable to agree on the terms of a deal. The latter course always seemed more plausible than the former, as the Tory Party now lacked a Westminster majority, had to rely upon Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to keep it in office, and was bitterly divided on the question of Brexit. But one way or another, Jeremy Corbyn would still be Labour leader as the Brexit crisis reached its crescendo.
In other words, it wouldn’t be possible to weaken Corbyn without weakening Labour. And it wouldn’t be possible to weaken Labour without hobbling the opposition to a Tory Party now in thrall to its most radical, hard-right elements.
In order to justify their refusal to accept this logic, centrists claimed that Labour’s Brexit policy differed in no meaningful way from that of the Tory government. This claim rested on the dangerous fantasy that every possible exit from the EU was bound to be equally damaging.
In fact, Labour’s 2017 manifesto explicitly ruled out “no deal” — “the worst possible deal for Britain” — and promised to replace the Tory approach to Brexit with “fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union.” It also promised to “ensure there can be no rolling back of key rights and protections and that the UK does not lag behind Europe in workplace protections and environmental standards in future” and warned that “for many Brexiteers in the Tory Party, this was why they wanted to Leave — to tear up regulations and weaken hard-fought rights and protections.” No credible analysis could present this as a mirror image of the approach followed by Theresa May or Boris Johnson.
That’s not to claim that there was nothing to criticize about Labour’s Brexit platform. While the manifesto pledged to “immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain and secure reciprocal rights for UK citizens who have chosen to make their lives in EU countries,” it also stated that “freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.” It was perfectly legitimate to oppose this as an unwarranted concession to xenophobic scaremongering about “mass immigration” and its alleged impact on jobs, wages, and public services.
But a bolder line in defense of immigrants would not require a new Labour leadership: indeed, the retreat over free movement only came about because of pressure from Corbyn’s opponents on the Labour right, egged on by the Guardian. This year’s Labour conference saw the pro-Corbyn membership vote unanimously in favor of preserving free movement — in or out of the European Union — while hard-Remain liberals continued to fawn over politicians like Tom Watson with a track record of pandering to xenophobia.
There were bound to be some people who still found the idea of a soft-Brexit deal unacceptable and wanted Labour to campaign for a second referendum in the hope of stopping Brexit altogether. For the sake of argument, let’s say they were right to demand this. Shifting Labour towards a “People’s Vote” stance would require an honest assessment of why the party had decided to accept the 2016 referendum result instead of trying to overturn it.
Instead, the champions of the hard-Remain camp presented Labour’s Brexit policy as the peculiar obsession of Jeremy Corbyn and his inner circle. They ignored the fact that prominent figures on the Labour right like Yvette Cooper were adamantly opposed to the idea of stopping Brexit. Cooper even compared those who wanted to overturn the referendum result to Donald Trump — a far more provocative comment than anything Corbyn has said on the subject, which has somehow disappeared down the memory hole.
Hearts and Heads
The People’s Vote campaign and its outriders used this year’s European election as an opportunity to pressure the Labour Party into changing its policy on a second referendum. In this, they were entirely successful — the one true victory achieved by the campaign since 2016. Labour took a major electoral hit, coming third behind the Liberal Democrats, and has yet to recover from the blow: its polling has only reached 30 percent on one occasion since the vote in May. In response, Labour committed over the summer to holding a repeat referendum with Remain as an option — not as a last resort, but under any circumstances.
The hard-Remain tendency had what it wanted: the main opposition party — the only party that can unseat the Tories in a general election — was now unambiguously in favor of a second referendum. Instead of welcoming this shift, Britain’s liberal center decided to move the goalposts. The Sky News journalist Lewis Goodall shook his head at this refusal to take “yes” for an answer. As he put it:
It is not enough that Mr Corbyn gives them what they want, that he has moved to the position they sought because of his head. He has not given them enough of his heart. He does not believe enough, which in this Brexit culture war is a graver sin than not providing the political means of getting what you want. Every time he moves, the anger is that he has not moved quicker — that he should declare Labour a Remain party, that he should move straight to Article 50 revocation, that he must pledge in advance to campaign to remain against a deal of his own negotiation, that he cannot be allowed to balance delicate politics because the signal and the noise is more important than his direction of travel.
Goodall’s judgement no doubt holds true for the ground troops of the People’s Vote campaign, but it would be too generous when applied to the inner core of “Continuity Remain” — figures like Alastair Campbell or the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson. For them, the idea of stopping Brexit has always been secondary. Their main priority has been to use the issue as a club with which to beat Corbyn and the Left, and as a vehicle for their own self-aggrandizement.
Swinson’s frivolous playacting in recent weeks — promising to scrap Brexit without a referendum if the Lib Dems win a majority, while knowing full well that will never happen — only makes sense if we assume that she considers a no-deal Brexit to be an acceptable price to pay for another twenty or thirty Lib Dem MPs. The same logic underpins Swinson’s refusal to back a short-lived caretaker government, with Corbyn as prime minister, that would request an extension to the Brexit deadline, before immediately calling a fresh election. Swinson and her colleagues care far more about preserving their image as the only true anti-Brexit force than they do about stopping Boris Johnson.
The moving of the goalposts over Brexit is exasperating enough, but worse still is the claim that it would be morally repugnant for the Lib Dems to support Corbyn, even in a tightly circumscribed caretaker role that lasted for a matter of weeks. Swinson’s party kept David Cameron and his Home Secretary Theresa May in power for five years as they enacted a series of racist policies that had very real consequences — up to and including death — for large numbers of people. Yet the absurd claim that Corbyn’s Labour Party would pose an “existential threat” to Britain’s Jewish population is now used to justify Swinson’s refusal to work with Labour.
There’s still every chance that Johnson’s hubris and tactical blunders will put paid to his bloated ambitions. But those ambitions could have been shot down a long time ago if Britain’s centrist bloc had been willing to apply some of its most cherished nostrums: politics requires compromise, the best can sometimes be the enemy of the good, and you have to deal with the world as it is, not as you’d like it to be. The coming weeks will show us whether the penny has finally started to drop.