Today, Theresa May asked the UK parliament once again to extend the Brexit negotiations. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was right last Tuesday when he countered May’s announcement that she would be making such a request by saying: “We were promised there would be a deal last October – that didn’t happen. We were promised a meaningful vote on a deal in December – that didn’t happen. We were told to prepare for a further meaningful vote this week after the prime minister again promised to secure “significant and legally binding” changes to the backstop – and that hasn’t happened.”

The backstop is a reference to the arrangement for the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which May and the EU enshrined in their agreement and which proved instrumental in the deal’s abject failure to pass through the UK House of Commons.

Corbyn accuses May of having just one real tactic: “to run down the clock hoping Members of this House are blackmailed into supporting a deeply flawed deal.” This is not an unlikely scenario, bearing in mind it has also been announced that the crucial vote may not now be held until 21 March, after the next EU summit. That would be just nine days before the United Kingdom leaves the EU.

May’s tactic, instead of leaving the EU via a so-called ‘hard Brexit’, i.e. a very low-level agreement, could come off. It is both destructive and precarious, because nobody can really foresee the economic – and therefore also social – consequences of both a low-level and unregulated Brexit.

But Corbyn, too, is playing a tactical game. On 6 February, when he submitted a five-point plan to Theresa May designed to legally enshrine a permanent customs union, close alignment with the EU single market, and clear agreements on EU-funded projects in the fields of the environment, education, science and industrial regulation, as well as the safeguarding of labour rights and agreements in the security domain, this had two immediate consequences. Firstly, it put May under pressure to involve the Opposition in shaping Brexit. Secondly, it meant that any inclusion of the individual points set out in Corbyn’s catalogue of demands could henceforth be construed as weakness on May’s part. Accordingly, Corbyn is positioning himself as someone who is not standing in the way of plans, but at the same time to some extent has the ‘last word’.

The ‘Labour version of Brexit’ clearly emerges from this five-point plan. For despite its surely fierce internal disagreements, Corbyn’s shadow cabinet still seems to favour a Brexit that raises hopes of a subsequent general election over the holding of a second referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership. Yet this second referendum is what the Left and more progressive wing of the Labour Party wants, rightly linking the questions about the referendum with the issue of its own party’s capacity for democracy.

Corbyn’s five-point plan takes up his own party’s main criticisms of Brexit – knowing full well that they will not be met – and in this way is seeking to unite the party more strongly behind his version of Brexit. And this he badly needs to do, because recently his approval ratings have dipped.

Neither Corbyn’s nor May’s manoeuvres will totally come off. Nonetheless, time and time again they are both managing to score points in this enduringly tense Brexit thriller. May now seems likely to win over some critics from within her own party as well as some exasperated Labour MPs to backing a low-level Brexit. As early as last week, the centre-Left Labour MP Lisa Nandy announced that she and another 40 to 60 Labour MPs could imagine voting for a soft form of Brexit to avoid a hard Brexit. Nandy is not a classic Corbynista and is regarded as more pro-Europe. Like many others, she fears the likelihood of rather long-term negative consequences in her constituency, Wigan, which like so many others voted for Leave, i.e. to exit the EU.

Originally published on 14 February 2019 at as part of the In historical thunder and lightning series which examined the Impact of Brexit.

About the author:

Johanna Bussemer is head of the Department of the European Section of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Berlin.

First published in: neues deutschland