The Brexit Swivel

AP Photo/Francisco Seco

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. 

Theresa May has built-in swivels in the heels of her colorful kitten shoes she adores wearing. Jeremy Corbyn is far less a fashionista but he too knows how to pirouette and change tack in Britain’s endless Brexit ballet.

More than 70 times since she became prime minister, May has told the House of Commons, TV interviewers and all journalists who ask that under all circumstances Britain would be leaving the EU on March 29 this year.

Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn has kept a steady distance from the idea of Labour endorsing a new referendum on Britain 's departure from Europe. This despite clear opinion poll majorities against leaving the EU and growing evidence of criminal corruption involving financing from dark forces in rightist American circles and the Kremlin the 2016 plebiscite.  

Instead the Labor leader has insisted on the need for a new general election, in which then a Labour-led renegotiation would still keep Britain out of the EU but via some alchemy create what he has called “a jobs-first Brexit” with maximum protection for workers.

Now both May and Corbyn have performed spectacular U-turns. Corbyn has given in to Labour Party activists, MPs, and his deputy leader—and on Monday in a spectacular political about-turn he endorsed a new referendum.

The next day May did her own about-turn and said Britain would not leave in a month’s time as she previously insisted, and instead MPs could vote if they so chose—and they will so chose—to delay Brexit into the summer.

She too was faced with cabinet resignations if she ploughed on and on with her previous insistence that if MPs did not vote for her proposed withdrawal deal—widely derided as opening the door to a “Brexeternity” of tetchy negotiations between Brussels and London over a future final framework agreement which will take years to finalize—then the only alternative was a crash-over-the cliffs of Dover No Deal.

No deal is code for 50 miles queues of trucks at Calais and Dover and a mile-long queue at the popular Eurostar train terminal in central London where today passengers hop on a train to Paris, Brussels and other European cities much as one catches the Amtrak from New York to Boston or Washington, D.C.

Under a No Deal—the devout wish of the right-wing admirers of Trumpnomics and the U.S. president’s hate of immigrants—entry and exit for passengers and goods into the U.K. would revert to the 1930s with controls and checks lasting hours.

Honda, Nissan, Airbus, and other firms have said they would have to quit Britain in the event of a No Deal. Unfortunately for May, in January the Commons rejected her flawed and unworkable alternative deal negotiated with the EU by 230 votes—the biggest defeat for a prime minister on a flagship policy in the parliamentary history of Britain.

This was followed by a Conservative Party vote of confidence in her when 117 Tory MPs voted for her ouster. She had no choice but to swallow her repeated promises that the U.K. would be out of the EU on March 29 and instead offer an extension.

Jeremy Corbyn arguably faced a worse internal party dilemma as a key group of prominent Labour MPs announced they were leaving the party in protest at his ineffectual, and weak leadership over Brexit which is rooted in his own 50 year long opposition to the concept of European integration and partnership inherent in the European Union.

In the 1970s when Corbyn began his political life, most Stalinists and Trotskyists  then influential in Labour adopted  socialism in one country slogans about Europe. They denounced supranational control of the steel and coal industries with worker participation as a capitalist plot to increase market opening and promote the creation of private sector firms. In fact, there are huge swathes of the EU economy in state, cooperative, or regional and municipal government hands; and workers rights are much better protected in Germany, the Netherlands or Nordic countries, which rigorously uphold tough social Europe pro-labor rules than they are in Britain.

A recent poll showed that 84 percent of voters who had reached voting age since 2016 wanted to stay in Europe and 87 percent said they would oppose May’s deal in a referendum.

This is the new energy against the rightist populist nationalism that Corbyn might have harnessed. But he did not know how.

Instead his hand was forced when eight Labour MPs walked out of the party and set up a so-called Independent Group in Parliament (with three Tory defectors) in protest at Corbyn’s capitulation to anti-European forces who refused to campaign against Brexit.

Offering a new referendum limited the damage of the Labour defections, just as offering an extension permitted May to keep her cabinet united by putting off the chances of a catastrophic rupture of trade and traffic with continental Europe.

But the two weak leaders have only bought time. Corbyn knows that there is little chance, at least for now, of the Commons agreeing to a new referendum.

May knows that a short postponement does not alter the number of Tory MPs dedicated to a full-on isolationist repudiation of partnership with Europe.

President Macron of France says he sees little point in granting May an extension if she is simply going to reiterate on previous positions and has nothing new to offer the EU in exchange for being allowed a short breathing space.

The European crisis—political, constitutional, economic, and social—continues to consume all public and political oxygen in Britain. Both May and Corbyn have yet to find the leadership, or the words to offer Britain a way out of this mess.

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