May and Corbyn’s secretive dealings have the strong whiff of an establishment stitch-up

  • Both leaders are happy to facilitate Brexit. There is a high risk that working people will be sold out behind closed doors in 10 Downing Street

  • Chuka Umunna MP

May and Corbyn’s secretive dealings have the strong whiff of an establishment stitch-up

Parliament was supposed to rise for the Easter recess last Thursday and the Easter school holidays in my constituency begin today. I understand the news that recess would be delayed did not go down well, quite understandably, with parliamentary staff. As a result of the ongoing chaos with Brexit we are still sitting this week with all the challenges that poses for parents who work in parliament and will now, at short notice, unexpectedly have to find childcare. 

There is now extreme weariness with the whole soap opera which is dangerous because the subject we are dealing with poses a direct threat to the jobs and livelihoods of people in every constituency – there is a risk it is waved through, due to sheer exhaustion with the process, however appalling the impacts may be.

The established parties are currently engaged in talks to try to agree a way forward. The prime minister Theresa May and the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn are both committed to seeing Brexit through, whereas those – including The Independent Group (TIG), the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru – who are unequivocally committed to referring this matter back to the people have now been excluded from the room. There is the strong whiff of an establishment stitch-up. 

During the two indicative vote sessions that have taken place in the last fortnight a people’s vote has scored the highest number of votes, followed by leaving the EU with a customs union – the sensible course would be to wrap the two into one, whereby the proposition of leaving the EU with a customs union is put to a confirmatory public vote. Neither of the main parties’ leaderships will agree to this because they want to facilitate Brexit and not stop it.

In and around the talks, mooted successors to the respective leaders of the main parties jostle to play to their party base. One minister who sits around the Cabinet table was complaining to me last week about the utterly lamentable state of their own government and commented on how they were one of the few people in May’s top team who is not running a leadership campaign. That is the principal focus for the Cabinet – their own interests, not the country’s.

On the Labour side the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry’s letter to shadow cabinet colleagues detailing her late conversion to the need for a people’s vote was “leaked” (that’s one way to describe it) after she had spent the last few months castigating those daring to make the case for a final say as doing so in order to attack the Labour leadership. The truth is she knows that the overwhelming majority of Labour members and voters want there to be a second public vote and this is likely to loom large over any future Labour leadership contest in which she will stand.

Both main party leaderships are anxious to avoid a long extension to the Article 50 process because they fear performing badly if European elections were to take place. The Conservatives expect to shed votes to Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party and UKIP; several Labour MPs tell me they expect their party to shed votes to TIG if our application to register as a party is successful.

So many people are telling us they’re fed up with the main parties and want a real choice when they come to vote. We do not have the big money of the two establishment parties, so we will be launching a European elections fundraising drive this week. We want to give the public the opportunity to send a message that they want to remain in the European Union – and our support for a confirmatory people’s vote is 100 per cent.

If our registration is successful, voters will be able to vote for a party that is united not split, does not indulge in constructive ambiguity or prevarication on this issue, and puts the country first rather than our internal party political considerations. We will make the positive case for keeping Britain’s voice around the table in Europe so that we are rule makers, not rule takers.

In the last week, I have spoken with and met ambassadors from four major EU countries, who tell me the sentiment around the EU Council table is to grant a longer extension to avoid the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal. Their governments do not want the economic fallout which would befall their own economies and for a no-deal Brexit to become a domestic political issue in the lead up to the European elections.

The main vehicle which May and Corbyn will use to avoid a long extension is some kind of agreement around leaving the EU with a customs union. To be clear: exiting the EU on customs union terms alone is no soft Brexit. It does not guarantee frictionless trade between the UK and EU and therefore does not resolve the Irish border issue; a customs union mainly covers trade in goods and not services which makes up 80 per cent of the UK’s economy; and it would mean missing out on the benefits of the single market with its suite of employment, environmental and consumer protections.  

Any promises by May to safeguard these protections after Brexit should be taken with a lorry load of salt given that she will be replaced as PM by a hard Brexiter by the end of the year, and it is very hard for a sitting PM to bind their successor. So the risk of a sell-out of working people is high – the establishment parties will cynically declare they can’t reach a deal with each other but will behind closed doors agree a process of voting in parliament. This will allow the Labour leadership to claim it has given a people’s vote a fair wind but which has the result of facilitating a customs union Brexit. This would be a betrayal of both the Labour Party membership and the working people it purports to represent.