(Bloomberg Opinion) -- British lawmakers opposed to leaving the European Union without a deal are a passionate bunch. For over two years, they have blanketed the airwaves, the TV studios and newspaper columns with arguments that a no-deal Brexit is the very height of irresponsibility and negligence, a national crisis in the making. Fingers have stabbed the air to punctuate the point. Speeches for the ages have been given on the subject, the kind that future history students will write essays on.
You would be forgiven for thinking that for this bunch – a parliamentary majority, after all -- anything is better than a no-deal Brexit, but not quite. When Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn put forth a way to avoid that dreaded, most awful outcome of the Brexit Saga, what happened? Noses were upturned.
Corbyn wrote to opposition leaders and key Conservative rebels Wednesday with a choice: Accept that the country is leaving the European Union with no deal in place, or back him to lead a temporary caretaker government that would stop the U.K. crashing out without an agreement and call an election. “Our priority should be to work together in parliament to prevent a deeply damaging No Deal being imposed on the country, denying voters the final say,” he wrote.
Corbyn’s plan is for lawmakers to oust Johnson in a vote of no confidence as soon as parliament reconvenes. They would then back a “time-limited” national unity government, led by the Labour leader, who would delay Brexit by requesting an extension of the Article 50 deadline (currently Oct. 31) and call a general election. Labour would campaign in that election for a second referendum with an option to remain in the EU. You would expect the leader of the opposition to propose just that; it’s almost a constitutional necessity if it appears that a government doesn’t command the confidence of parliament.
QuicktakeNo Deal Brexit
But as Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell once famously advised the press, “watch what we do, not what we say.” That applies in the great Brexit divide too.
This was a moment of truth for the Liberal Democrats, which have been revived in British politics from near oblivion by taking a strong Remain stance. Stopping a no-deal Brexit is a precondition to remaining, so you would think the party might at least be willing to talk. But the new Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, responded quickly that Corbyn “is not the person who is going to be able to build an even temporary majority in the House of Commons for this task.”
Other lawmakers who are among the most impassioned opponents of leaving without a deal proved similarly unwilling to see Corbyn lead a government. Anna Soubry, the former Conservative MP who defected to form the anti-Brexit Change UK party, was miffed she wasn’t included in the letter and dismissed it as a stunt. If Corbyn were really serious about stopping a no-deal Brexit, he would have proposed a referendum rather than an election first, she reasoned. So toxic is Corbyn’s own brand that the proposal was dead on arrival.
The whole exercise might have been more for show, as Soubry suggests. Corbyn needed to make some move if he is to say to voters in an election that he did everything possible to stop a no-deal Brexit under Johnson. A no-deal Brexit has political advantages for Labour provided the party can claim it tried to stop it, blame the government for the mess and promise closer trade ties to Europe in future negotiations under a Labour government.
Corbyn himself has never really opposed Brexit. Labour policy has been confusingly ambiguous on the subject, though lately the party has moved toward supporting a second referendum. For Conservative rebels opposed to leaving without a deal, there is still the problem of explaining to voters how they decided to support a socialist leader whose policies could prove just as economically damaging if he were able to prolong his stay in Downing Street.
That puts paid to the idea of a national unity government for now, unless Corbyn were to back down and accept another figure in charge (pigs will fly first). The various other blocking options, detailed in a column earlier this week, offer little confidence to those wanting to stop no deal either. Probably the best chance, short of a change of government, is for the opposition to force through legislation that requires an extension of the deadline. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow would be instrumental in this and he seems to be bullish.
“I will fight with every breath in my body to stop that happening. We cannot have a situation in which parliament is shut down. We are a democratic society and parliament will be heard,” he told an Edinburgh festival audience this week.
Binary choices in politics are like truth serum. Theresa May offered her deal or said the country would head toward a no-deal exit. Lawmakers refused her deal. Offered the prospect of Johnson’s no-deal exit or Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street, they again took a pass at the alternative. Perhaps they still believe a no-deal Brexit can be averted through other means, or else they are willing to accept it and go to an election laying the blame elsewhere (the government, parliament, the EU). Either way, it’s not very reassuring.
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Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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