The choice in election 2017: Brexit or Brexit

For a moment this morning it looked like Labour might do something interesting. Jeremy Corbyn was asked about holding a second vote on whatever Theresa May's final Brexit deal was and refused to answer. John McDonnell was asked several times and also refused to answer. The Labour leader even offered some passably coherent comments on the dangers of a WTO fallback option and the intricacies of trade networks.

It seemed for a second that the shock of the general election might have forced Labour to get its act together on the issue. Maybe it would even adopt a policy on it. But within hours these hopes had been put to bed and normal service was resumed. "A second referendum is not our policy and it won’t be in our manifesto,” Labour's spokesperson said.

So we're back where we were with Corbyn's Brexit policy: He "accepts" the vote, he wants no second referendum, his demand for the talks is limited to tariffs only - a lower benchmark than May has set for herself - and he opposes membership of the single market. Labour is a pro-Brexit party. You might think they would deliver a softer Brexit, but that is an article of faith or intuition. It is not a matter of policy. 

This is worth bearing in mind now that Brexit supporters in the press are increasingly saying that May will have a mandate for hard Brexit after the election. These are the same people, don't forget, who just days ago were saying she already had a mandate for hard Brexit by virtue of the referendum result. They are also the people who said she didn't need a mandate for hard Brexit in the form of a second referendum.

The argument is quite mad. It tacitly accepts that a mandate is needed but insists it can only be expressed through an election against another pro-Brexit party, not by a referendum in which the specific question is on the ballot paper.

You could say that Remainers have other parties to vote for. It's technically true, but not meaningfully so. The SNP only contest seats in Scotland. The Lib Dems have nine MPs and no hope of forming a government or even a coalition. The Greens have one.

For May to have a mandate for hard Brexit through an election, there must be another vehicle by which voters could stop her from pursuing it. That vehicle does not exist. Therefore there is no mandate.

The choice between Labour and the Tories in this election is a choice between Brexit or Brexit. Don't let anyone tell you this process offers a mandate for May's plans.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now from Canbury Press.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Election 2017: May's great lie

No-one believes Theresa May's great lie. I haven't spoken to anyone, on whatever side of the political spectrum, working for any news outlet, who actually accepts what she said yesterday.

"The country is coming together, but Westminster is not," she insisted. Opposition parties are apparently trying to sabotage her Brexit strategy so she's going to the country to secure a Brexit mandate which will strengthen her hand at home and in Europe.

You'd never know that she just got her Article 50 bill through parliament completely unamended. The "unelected members of the House of Lords" who "vowed to fight us every step of the way" sent the bill back to the Commons once and then let it pass, eager to show that they understood their place in relation to the other Chamber.

Shortly after she made her announcement, Jeremy Corbyn popped up to confirm that Labour would vote to authorise an election. At first he did not mention Brexit at all. That alone was unsurprising. He has shown very little interest in the subject except to occasionally help force it through, for instance by whipping his MPs to vote with the government on Article 50. Later in the day he began giving interviews in which he spoke of delivering a fair Brexit.

So there it was. Labour would run on a platform of accepting and helping to deliver Brexit. May's arguments were clearly and demonstrably nonsense. In her interview on the Today programme this morning, May repeatedly referred to the Lib Dem opposition to Brexit. It was almost laughable. The party has nine MPs. 

The reality of May's election announcement is just boring, old-fashioned, venal self-interest. She has a 20-point lead over Labour and wants to expand her majority. In a bid to do so, she is going to transpose one thing with another. May has called a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn and is going to pretend the result is a mandate for her Brexit strategy.

Polls suggest views on Brexit are still split down the middle. Views on Corbyn are not. It serves May to pretend one is the other. That allows her to expand control over parliament and her own party.

This type of lie is exactly what poisons politics. She promised not to hold an election. It was almost the first thing she said when running for Tory leader. She promised again and again and again. But then she saw a way to expand her power. So she broke her promise.

That alone is poisonous enough. But there are signs May is planning to conduct this election in the most toxic way possible. Her constant reference to unity does precisely the opposite of what it sounds like. It pretends that the public are of one position - on Brexit and everything else. Anyone who does not share it is therefore a saboteur acting against the interests of the nation. It is a dangerous and highly irresponsible approach to an election, which serves to cement division rather than alleviate it.

If the prime minister was not pursuing Brexit, the press would be at her throat for breaking her election pledge. It is, after all, as shameful and complete a lie as that which the Liberal Democrats engaged in over tuition fees. But instead, the right-wing press enthusiastically followed her talk of unity to its logical conclusion.

This is going to get much, much worse. Look at the quote below from Garry Heath, chairman of Wycombe Conservative Association.

"If the forthcoming general election is to count, the Conservatives need to present a profoundly different type of politics. We must move away from division politics and return a voice to the white working class, the self-employed and other small business people who have had no voice in government for decades. We must be the unashamed voice of unity across the UK; as a country, we have been divided too long."

There is something dangerously authoritarian in all this. It suggests there is one homogenous majority - the white working class, who back Brexit and hate immigration. May will not say that her post-election majority is the result of an unpopular Labour leader. She will say it is the result of mass popular support for the entirety of her political programme. Anyone opposing her is therefore subverting the people's will.

We know where this kind of language goes. Look at those Mail and Sun front pages. It is going there already. The next two months could get very ugly indeed.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now from Canbury Press.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

How the general election could go against Theresa May

First things first: The Conservatives are almost certainly going to win the general election and, in all likelihood, increase their majority to around the 100 mark. Corbyn is too weak, the forces of opposition are too divided and Theresa May enjoys strong personal polling.

This is why she has undertaken this decision. It's got nothing to do with the threat of Brexit opponents derailing the project, as she said. She only just got through passing her Article 50 bill unamended, for heaven's sake. It's to do with taking advantage of her fortunate circumstances - not so much against other parties, but against the moderate and headbanger wing in her own party, who were increasingly using her small majority against her.

That being said, this election is not a given conclusion. And even with a Conservative win, it could still damage the prime minister substantially and permanently.

The first thing to note is that the Conservatives will not just win seats. They will also lose them. The Conservatives are likely to lose most of the 27 seats they took off the Lib Dems in the last election. All their gains in south London are likely to go, as are those in Cornwall and Devon, where Tory MPs had been keen for May not to hold an election. In Richmond, Tim Farron's party weaponised Brexit to overturn Zac Goldsmith's 23,015 majority. There are only so many seats where Brexit has that type of electoral impact, but they do exist and they will hurt.

That Richmond by-election can't be repeated everywhere. While the country remains about as divided over Brexit as it was at the time of the vote, it only appears to be a galvinising voting matter for about a fifth of the electorate. Plus general elections demand that parties like the Lib Dems spread their limited resources, preventing them from flooding an area with volunteers and pamphlets as they did in Richmond.

But these are uniquely chaotic and volatile political times. If a progressive alliance against hard Brexit could be formed, it would hit the Conservatives. It might not defeat them - but the prime minister needs to massively increase her majority in order to justify this decision. If she ends up anywhere near where she is now she will be treated as a self-interested failure who got her own MPs sacked and wasted valuable negotiating time trying to take advantage of beneficial political winds. Whether Labour has the intelligence or the decency to pursue that type of initiative is another matter - the fact Corbyn didn't even mention Brexit in his statement on the election suggests otherwise. But the option is there and it could work.

May presented her decision as one made in the national interest. Nothing could be further from the truth. She has only just triggered Article 50, which offers Britain a brutal two-year timetable in which to do about a decade's worth of work. She has now decided to eat into that by holding a general election for its first few months. Her supporters say that it does not matter because little will happen while everyone on the continent is distracted by the French election. That is a valid argument, but one which rather raises the question of why she decided to trigger just before French election anyway.

It also goes against her repeated promises not to hold a general election. This was literally one of the first things she said when running for leader. This type of flip-flopping is never a good look, but it is potentially a particularly damaging one for someone who already flipped rather vigorously on the subject of Brexit itself and yet tries to frame herself as a sturdy, no-nonsense Mark 2 Iron Lady.

The election announcement also dismantles several of her arguments on issues which are currently dominating the headlines. How can she say it is "not the time" for a Scottish independence referendum, for instance, when it suddenly is the time for a snap election?

May has the press on her side and enjoys much higher support than her rivals, which could insulate her from the type of damage this type of self-interested hypocrisy would inflict on another leader. But she will still take damage. And if she does not manage to substantially increase her majority, this decision will come to define her.

May made this decision because she is strong in the short term but also weak in the long term. She knows she is going into a difficult period. Last week inflation due to Brexit meant people were once again getting poorer. The rows over the loss of European regulators in the UK showed again why the Article 50 process will be politically difficult for No10. She is holding this election now because she knows it'll only be harder later.

If opposition parties play their cards right, May could come out of this election suffering severe reputational damage as she goes into the business end of Brexit negotiations. Furthermore, a Labour loss could precipitates the replacement of Corbyn with someone more competent. The stars are not aligned for a Tory defeat. But their victory could put the party in a worse position than it had with a slim majority.

Last week, a video of Google's chief business officer Mo Gawdat describing his algorithm for happiness went viral. His belief was that happiness is equal to, or greater than, the events of your life minus your expectation of how life should be.

 

For liberals, left wingers, centrists and Brexit critics, this is a tough day. May is almost certainly going to win this election. The Tories are over 20 points ahead of Labour. But if you assume that, if you emotionally start to acclimatise to it, you find reasons to be relatively optimistic. Yes, she is cynically using her advantageous position to launch a campaign in which she will entrench social divisions in order to expand her party's power. But there are many risks for the prime minister in the path she has chosen. The task of her opponents, from wherever they are on the political spectrum, is to take full advantage of them.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now from Canbury Press.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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