Brexit Vote Protest, London, 19 October, 2019
If, as Harold Wilson quipped, a week in politics is a long time, then three months would constitute an eternity. This summer, after Theresa May’s long-anticipated resignation, Boris Johnson, the leader of the official Leave campaign during the 2016 referendum, won the leadership of the Conservative Party (with a membership of around 160,000 Britons) in a landslide that earned him the keys to No. 10 Downing Street. While Mr. Johnson famously promised to “do or die” in his efforts to pull Britain out of the EU by October 31st, the country now finds itself facing its third general election in five years.
Even if one ignores the reality that the UK’s Brexit policy and the question of who governs the country are entirely separate issues, the pitfalls of using a general election to resolve Brexit may seem obvious. The 2017 general elections were ostensibly called for the same purpose, only for the campaigns to consign the issue to the back burner even though over a third of voters surveyed by the BBC considered it the single most important issue facing the country. Additionally, the United Kingdom’s first-past-the-post system may well fail to accurately reflect “the will of the people”; Boris Johnson’s eagerness for a general election reflects his hardline pro-Brexit stance, which has effectively marginalized Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s support has been more befuddling — the Financial Times’ opinion poll tracker has the Conservatives (at 35%) leading Labour by a whopping ten percentage points, with the unambiguously anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats hot on the latter’s heels. Meanwhile, the Brexit Party languishes at only 10% of the electorate.
In a political climate singularly dominated by Brexit, Corbyn’s pursuit of the excluded middle in the Brexit debate may cripple his party’s fortunes. As Tony Blair pointed out, Corbyn’s “Labour Brexit”, which entails remaining in the EU customs union and single market, ties Britain economically to the bloc while removing its capability to affect any of its decisions, and would simultaneously outrage the No Deal and anti-Brexit camps. At last month’s party conference, Corbyn acolytes resisted the call of senior anti-Brexit leaders, including the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and the Shadow Foreign Secretary, to adopt a clear pro-Remain stance. Instead, the dominant far-left wing of the Party, historically as suspicious of the EU as their counterparts on the right-wing, has elected to defer their stance on Brexit until Corbyn negotiates his own Labour Brexit deal with Brussels. Corbyn has instead declared “the most radical campaign for real change our country has ever seen”, which surely could not refer to his carefully calibrated attitude to Brexit —
Another piece of evidence that Corbyn seeks to avoid putting the Brexit issue front-and-center this campaign. Considering his refusal to countenance a referendum until Labour has had the chance to negotiate its Brexit bill, one cannot help but conclude that, like his Conservative rivals, Corbyn has nakedly put party (more accurately, the allure of office) over country.
Interestingly, the June YouGov poll mentioned above revealed a fascinating tidbit — while sizeable majorities of Conservative Party members would prefer Brexit be carried out even at the cost of “significant damage to the UK economy”, “the Conservative Party being destroyed”, or even the breakup of the United Kingdom, they would still fear a Corbyn premiership more than an aborted Brexit. Thus, Johnson’s eagerness to pair Brexit with the specter of Corbyn in No. 10 should be recognized for the obvious trap that it is. In the face of a 21st-century populist challenge, Labour appears destined to repeat the mistakes of generations of 20th-century far-Left British politicians. In the face of a divided Left and Center, one can only conclude that Johnson, despite all the setbacks of the past few months, remains in pole position come December 12th, despite his failure to do or die. A successful anti-Brexit campaign would either require an unlikely level of cooperation between Labour and the other center and left-wing parties (including the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and the Greens) or Labour’s vote share implausibly collapsing, with the void filled by these unambiguously anti-Brexit parties.