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January 17, 2018

Labour smashes No Brexit dreams

We cannot recall any issue of such low probability being given so much airtime and print space as the possibility of a Brexit revocation. As we pointed out before, revocation is not a zero probability event, but in the absence of a clear-headed strategy it is wishful thinking. Donald Tusk did himself no favours by trying to stoke this debate with a tweet yesterday, in which he said that the UK could still change its mind. He keeps on doing this, but all he achieves with it is to encourage the idea in the UK that the EU is utterly undemocratic.

Over the last few days the Labour Party has removed the last remnants of constructive ambiguity about its position on this very issue. Jeremy Corbyn said over the weekend that Labour was not seeking a second referendum, but what really caught our eye was the clear-headed argument by Keir Starmer, which tells us that this is not just a comment to be retracted later, but an issue the Labour leadership has discussed in detail and rejected. The Guardian reports Starmer as saying that the Article 50 withdrawal agreement will not have the exact details of the future trade agreement. This is of key importance. 

“But there are a number of obvious difficulties [with a second referendum]. I don’t think we’re going to know what 'out' looks like [until] 2021 at the earliest. And therefore the only point you’ll be able to measure out is in several years’ time, but we will have exited the EU in 2019; and therefore 'in' is no longer an option.”

Many trade-related issues will be left open by the time the UK parliament has its "meaningful vote" on Brexit, a euphemism since the real meaningful decision was to trigger Article 50. The vote cannot undo Brexit - all it can do is trigger the nuclear option of a no-deal Brexit. The final contours of the trade agreement will not become clear until the end of the transition period, which will probably have to be renewed, since the time frame is unlikely to be sufficient to negotiation a trade deal, and to seek its preliminary application.

Starmer also argued that Remain campaigners may be overestimating their strength, and could lose a second vote if it were held. A party with a claim to govern cannot look back to the past, but needs to look to the future. 

The issue was discussed at a meeting among Labour MPs, and one MP was quoted as saying that these comments constitute a hardening of the party's position. 

Since the Labour Party wants to retain the benefits of the single market and the customs union, the question we have is why not force the government into a U-turn on the mandate. 

We agree with the Labour MP Wes Streeting, who said that Labour is in a position to force the Norway option. 

“With Labour, there would be a majority in the Commons for single market membership, but not without us. If the Labour party announced tomorrow that we would keep Britain in the single market and customs union, it would be a game-changing moment in British politics. The policy would command a majority in the Commons and a majority in the country.” 

If one wants to understand the deeper politics behind Labour's de facto Brexit endorsement, we recommend this article by Lisa McKenzie, who describes herself as a working-class academic, and who has carried out extensive research into working class opinion in the UK. Her account in the LSE blog is based on conversations she had with working-class Brexit supporters in London and in the industrial areas of the English midlands. She noted that people followed the EU debate in much greater detail than is widely acknowledged. The Brexit vote offered them the first opportunity in their lives to engage politically and to make a difference to the course of UK politics. Many of them have suffered since the financial crisis. Going back to the second referendum debate, we agree with the following observation by McKenzie:

"Working-class Leavers were derided as turkeys voting for Christmas, but it is the middle-class Remainers who have been running around like headless chickens since the vote. Like Henny Penny, they think the sky is falling in, but whether the sky falls in or not, Brexit has made a difference to working-class people dubbed ‘the left behind’. They have become visible for the first time in generations, and to some extent feared."

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January 17, 2018

A new political bargain in Portugal?

In Portugal the political landscape moved to the centre when Rui Rio was elected leader of the centre-conservative PSD last weekend. He will take over from Passos Coelho after the party's congress in February. A critic of his predecessor's austerity policies, his task is now to define a party line and a new programme. In an interview yesterday Rio keeps his options open by saying that, while winning an absolute majority is his first goal, there are also common traits with the Socialists (PS) and the conservative CDS party that can be explored in the common interest of the country. He insisted that his party is neither to the right nor to the left, but in the centre.

During his campaign Rio suggested his party could take up Costa’s call for a cross-party consensus on a national public works programme to attract EU funding, so Politico. Rio is also open to supporting a minority Socialist government if Costa wins the 2019 election but fails to secure a parliamentary majority. He said that this would be to avoid a repeat of the current scenario where the Socialist party governs with the help of the radical Left Bloc and of the Communists.

Will this get him voters? Not clear. Recent polls suggest that, no matter what, Antonio Costa would win. But Rio's national interest narrative gets his party back into the game. By making his party available to become an alternative partner for a Socialist minority government, attention shifts back to António Costa. The shift in the political balance could make it harder for the government to agree on policies called for by the Left party and the Communists in return for their support.

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