Theresa May’s Brexit deal isn’t going anywhere — but neither is her government.
On Tuesday, Parliament voted down the prime minister’s plan for withdrawing Britain from the European Union by a historic 230-vote margin. One day later, a slim majority of that same body affirmed their confidence in her government.
These developments have simultaneously left the Conservatives with a firm grip on state power, and the Labour Party with the power to shape Brexit’s fate. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn may be too focused on winning the kind of power he doesn’t have to exercise the kind that he does.
To understand all this, you need to appreciate how awkwardly Brexit has polarized the British public. The United Kingdom is sharply divided between “remain” and “leave” factions — but the U.K.’s two major parties are not. Like their Republican counterparts in the U.S., May’s Tories represent a motley coalition of wealthy, fiscally conservative cosmopolitans, and culturally conservative nationalists. Her party’s parliamentary representatives can agree that they’d rather have her as prime minister than risk the election of a socialist like Corbyn. But they are bitterly divided over the most important question facing her government: On Tuesday, more than 100 Tory MPs voted against May’s Brexit agreement. Many of these lawmakers are hard-line Brexiteers, who have no interest in backing any agreement that the European Union would actually accept.
By contrast, Corbyn was able to keep his coalition in line this week. Only three Labour MPs defected on Tuesday to back May’s deal. And that display of unity suggests that Labour could plausibly tip the parliamentary balance in favor of a “softer” Brexit deal — or a second referendum — by making common cause with moderate Tories who fear a “no deal” Brexit, and the smaller, pro-remain opposition parties. But that would require Corbyn to take a firmer position on Brexit than the equivocal one he’s struck thus far.
And that is something that Corbyn would ostensibly prefer to avoid, as his party is also divided between remain and leave camps. In Labour’s case, the former faction is much larger than the latter. A recent study suggests that three-quarters of the party’s membership back a second referendum, which would allow the British public to choose between staying in the E.U., and accepting May’s (unpopular) deal. Current polling suggests that remainers would win that fight.
And yet Corbyn’s success in triangulating on Brexit played no small role in his party’s strong showing in the 2017 general election, when Labour regained ground in pro-leave, postindustrial areas — and flipped pro-remain Tory strongholds in London — at the same time. Further, many in Corbyn’s party believe that Labour cannot assemble a governing majority without reclaiming more rural districts, and thus, growing its pro-leave wing.
That strategic consideration, combined with Corbyn’s ambivalence about the E.U. project as a substantive matter, has led Labour to play a hands-off role in the Brexit process. In purely political terms, allowing the Tories to claim sole ownership of an unpopular Brexit deal — while championing an ill-defined alternative agreement (which can be all things to all constituencies) — might have been Corbyn’s best play. But that route now looks untenable. The Labour leader’s core support comes from young Londoners who despise Brexit and the reactionary xenophobia that fueled it. And after May’s Brexit deal went down in flames, all the smaller opposition parties and major U.K. business interests have echoed the Corbyn base’s calls for a second referendum.
Meanwhile, May has invited her parliamentary opposition into negotiations, in hopes of crafting a consensus Brexit agreement. Corbyn has refused to join those talks until the prime minister promises to take a “no deal” Brexit off the table; as is, if Parliament fails to approve an agreement by March 29, Britain will crash out of the E.U., a development likely to sow chaos throughout the island’s economy.
As of this writing, May has refused to make that concession. And her talks appear to be farcical, anyway — the E.U. is unlikely to approve any changes to the existing agreement, save for ones that would bring the U.K. into even closer alignment with Brussels. That’s the last thing May’s intraparty opponents want.
May’s moderate intraparty supporters, however, might be amenable to such an agreement, if the Labour Party committed to supporting it en masse. Corbyn could conceivably assemble a majority behind keeping Britain in the E.U.’s single-market — which is to say, a majority for preserving the bulk of the economic advantages that the U.K. derives from E.U. membership, in exchange for honoring the bulk of its existing commitments (including the freedom of movement). He might also be able to rally a majority behind a new referendum.
But it’s unclear whether he can do either of those things without irrevocably alienating his party’s pro-leave faction. And, for the moment, that’s a risk that Corbyn appears unwilling to take.