Labour shouldn’t vote for any Boris Johnson Brexit deal – here’s why

Alastair Campbell
·10-min read
 (iStock)
(iStock)

A big debate is going on among Labour MPs about Brexit and whether they should support a deal, if there is a vote on it.

I say “if” because there is no legal requirement for a vote, if the government does get a deal, but Boris Johnson will ensure there is one so he can preen and pretend this is what he wanted, and try to make life difficult for Labour. I fail to see why Labour should offer him solace or support in this endeavour.

There are so many reasons not to vote for a Johnson deal that it is hard to know where to start. As good a place as any is to look at the arguments being made by those who think they should.

1. It will signal to voters in the “Red Wall” seats that Labour is reconciled to Brexit.

There is so much nonsense talked about the Red Wall seats that I wish the phrase had never entered the lexicon. It is part of the lazy Westminster bubble analysis, which always wants to find an easy answer as to why often complicated change happened. “The north wanted Brexit” is about as lazy and bubbly as it gets.

Of course Brexit was an issue at the last election. That’s why Boris Johnson put his “oven-ready deal” (sic) at the heart of his campaign. But the north’s big cities voted Remain and some of the most passionate anti-Brexiteers are often located outside the southeast, just as London and the south are home to some of the most ardently pro-no dealers.

When it came to people rejecting Labour, Brexit was not nearly as big an issue as Jeremy Corbyn and the general direction of the party under his leadership. Every unseated MP knows that from bitter experience.

A bigger problem than Labour voters defecting to the Tories in many of these seats was turn-out plummeting in 49 of the 50 most pro-Leave constituencies. Getting people to re-engage with politics requires a more inspiring message than “we backed a deal we didn’t really like and which we knew would damage your future”. The IFS has calculated that even if the UK gets a deal, it will still knock 4 per cent off the value of our economy. The impact of that is going to be felt first and worst in the poorest places, which may explain consistent and growing support for the view that Brexit was a “mistake” and the latest poll showing an 8 per cent lead for Remain. America has at least corrected its 2016 error.

2. We won’t get a proper hearing in the Red Wall seats until we admit we got Brexit wrong.

Nonsense. Those who really love Brexit won’t be convinced at all. Those who hate Brexit – among them many Labour voters in Red Wall seats – will feel let down. The reality is Labour won’t get a “proper hearing” there and everywhere else until they put forward policies on the economy, jobs, health, education, crime and all the other big issues in their lives that are innovative, credible, coherent and better than the rubbish being served up by the worst government in our lifetime.

3. Keir Starmer has to deal with the charge that he is a north London Remoaner.

This one is as Westminster village bubble as it gets. Keir has done a good job establishing himself with the public since becoming leader. But until then he was not nearly as well known outside Westminster as inside it. They are listening far too much to Tory attack lines – which, judging by the last focus group findings I saw, are not getting through – and not focusing enough on that agenda for change that people want in their lives and are going to want even more after the twin disasters of Covid-19 and Brexit.

Keir is close to being a blank page for a lot of people out there. He can fill it more on his own terms than most new leaders can. But the next election will be upon him as fast as you can say “what to do about Corbyn?” Oh, and on that, he already has one problem with a section of the party membership, namely Corbyn’s suspension; I suspect he could end up with an even bigger one if he decides to co-own the Brexit deal. Those arguing for a pro vote in the PLP claim it will bring closure in the party. It won’t.

4. If we don’t vote for the deal, we will be accused of backing no deal.

That is entirely possible, as the Tory Party will always find a way to lie about their opponents’ intentions, like they have said Labour want to stop Christmas (despite their support for them on key Covid moves). Nobody on the planet thinks Labour wants no deal, so that, at least – despite the party so clearly vacating the Brexit battlefield at times under successive leaders – has got through. You put down a reasoned amendment explaining the failures of negotiation and the weaknesses in the deal – a bad deal is the only one left on offer – and you abstain on the main vote. Abstain and explain.

5. They will say abstention is weakness.

Agreed, the public tend not to be impressed by abstention. But it can be justified in a case where the likeliest alternative outcome is no deal. Also, the deal is certain to get through regardless of what Labour do because of the Tory majority. Come the next election most will barely remember what the opposition did on the deal. But if Labour support it, they will sure as hell remember. Because every time between now and then that Labour try to expose the failings in the Brexit outcome, the Tory cry will go up “BUT YOU VOTED FOR IT!”

Look at how they have handled Covid. When the opposition supports them, the Tories pocket it with glee. When Labour raise objections to things going wrong – and my God there is a lot to choose from – Boris Johnson blathers on about Captain Hindsight and urges Keir Starmer to make up his mind. I sense Starmer has been somewhat taken aback by just how venal and ruthless Johnson and Co are when it comes to dealing with a broadly supportive-in-a-crisis opposition. They ain’t seen nothing yet.

When Brexit unravels, they will blame Covid, and they will blame Europe. When Labour tries to pin it on the government, a past vote for the deal will weaken them beyond repair. One of the biggest weapons in their armoury will be blunted to the point of impotence. Every justified complaint will be a whinge, every vital attack “sour grapes”, every criticism demolished by “But you voted for it!” And those responses will be powerful in the Red Wall, the Blue City and everywhere else – because they’ll be true.

6. No deal would be so bad for the UK that we have to vote for any deal.

Wrong. The best deal now left available is an anorexic tariff agreement with warm words about the future thrown in. The promised “exact same benefits” as membership have gone. “Easiest deal in history … we hold all the cards … have our cake and eat it …” – it is a failure. Worse, it will fail to deal with the huge holdups, disruptions, the extra bureaucracy and the costs of non-tariff impediments to trade in goods and sale of services. That’s what leaving the single market means, and Labour should not volunteer to share the blame and the guilt that will be done by the realities of the vast and vital areas that it will not cover.

7. We have to show we can take tough decisions, to show we are fit to govern again.

It is never a tough decision to walk away from a tough argument. A tough decision on Europe would be to say you are holding these liars and charlatans to account on it, day in day out. Committing harm to yourself and the country just to show you are tough enough to do it does not make you fit to govern. Nor am I remotely persuaded that the way to show fitness to govern is by helping the least fit to govern prime minister, cabinet and party of our lifetime.

8. People are sick of Brexit and just want it over with.

It won’t be over with. Brexit doesn’t end on 1 January. It starts. Deal or no deal, the UK continues to exist (though thanks to Brexit the Tories are doing their best to break it) and the EU continues to exist, and both have to work out ways of dealing with each other. Back them on the deal and every time an issue develops that is difficult for the government there will be as much focus on Labour as on the Tories because – here we go again – “you voted for it”.

Labour would also be voting for a deal which not only fails to meet the conditions the government set for it, it fails to meet all the conditions Labour set too. And on the Union by the way, one of Labour’s biggest problems in getting a majority is Scotland and the strength of the SNP. Vote for the deal and they have another useful weapon.

9. Voting for the deal clears the way for Labour to make a more constructive argument about our future relationship with Europe.

It does the opposite. The dynamic in this debate will quickly shift back to cries of betrayal from the Brextremists and populists. The pressure on the government will be to seek ways of diverging from it and picking a populist fight against those nasty Europeans. Labour will be marooned in a place where they have to defend an unpopular deal because “you voted for it”.

10. Nobody will understand if we are saying we don’t want no deal but we can’t back this deal.

That depends how you frame it.

My advice would be to go back to the promises made for Brexit in 2016. Take them apart one by one. Show how they have failed to meet them. Expose the lies, delusions and deceptions. Explain the damage they have already done and will do in the future.

Then focus on the promises made in the oven-ready election, and do the same. Then say that yes, Johnson won the referendum and he won the election so we accept he has a mandate. He has used this mandate and he has the majority for this deal. If our votes were needed to prevent no deal we might back him. But they are not and we won’t. Instead we will wish him all the best with his deal and we will track it every step of the way, and measure it against his own promises, and against the day to day reality for people and businesses in the UK.

And though we accept we have left, we know Europe will still matter to the lives of people and the success of business. So we will work towards co-operation and partnership on shared goals and objectives, and let the Conservative Party continue to tear itself apart because even now some of them would rather have no deal than any deal at all.

Johnson and the Tories need to get this message loud and clear: “Brexit was your dream – own it. This is your deal – own it. Covid happening on your watch – own it. Your two big challenges in government, and you have failed on both. We will hold you to account on both, and meanwhile we will get on with preparing a policy agenda to take this country forward after a decade under you lot which has caused nothing but chaos, harm and decline.”

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