It’s a measure of just how mad the world has gone that the craziest British election in decades is competing for room on Friday’s front pages. But the outcome is no less important for all that: The British left has been handed an unexpected opportunity to stop Brexit from turning into an unmitigated disaster. Sadly, it is unlikely to take advantage of it.
Six weeks ago, Theresa May enjoyed so commanding a lead in the polls that she gambled her political future on an early election in the expectation of winning a landslide victory. Asking for a clear mandate in Britain’s upcoming divorce negotiations with the European Union, she promised to provide “strong and stable leadership.”
Instead, May has suffered a humiliating setback. The Labour Party—led by Jeremy Corbyn, a leftist whose open admiration for Hamas and Hugo Chávez makes him a more natural ally to Jill Stein than to Bernie Sanders—did much better than expected. And while May will likely be able to stay in office thanks to some arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, a small Northern Irish party, her Conservative Party no longer has a parliamentary majority of its own. With just 10 days to go until Brexit negotiations start, Britain has a deeply unstable government with no mandate. This throws the country into even greater confusion and uncertainty than it has faced over the past confusing and uncertain year.
Before the country voted to leave the European Union last June, there was surprisingly little discussion about what Brexit would actually mean. The architects of the “Leave” campaign promised that, once outside of the European Union, Britain could spend a lot more money on the National Health Service and reduce migration flows. But its most prominent voices also claimed that the country would of course remain part of the so-called single market, enabling British companies to keep trading with the continent without tariffs or big regulatory burdens.
Since the day of the referendum, it has increasingly become evident that this promise was never realistic. While European leaders and corporations are sad to see Britain go, they give much greater importance to preserving the integrity of the single market than to avoiding tariffs with Great Britain. And since they regard the “free movement of goods and people” as the central feature of the single market, Britain essentially faces a stark choice: Either keep tariff-free trade with the EU and accept that Italians and Poles will keep the right to work in Britain (the soft Brexit option), or gain more control over European migration and lose favored trade access to the continent (hard Brexit).
If this election had served any useful purpose, it would have given the British people a chance to express their preference on this trade-off: Would you rather give up on reducing migration from the continent or cripple Britain’s economy? Instead, both sides of the debate essentially promised the British people that they could have their cake and eat it too.
Theresa May has avoided setting out a detailed plan for Brexit ever since she seized the leadership of her party, and her country, in the aftermath of last year’s vote. The puzzling vow that “Brexit means Brexit” made her prime minister. Now, the equally puzzling vow that “the people have spoken” was meant to win her re-election. But would she be willing to take Britain out of the single market? Or was she trying to increase her parliamentary majority in order to have the standing to make painful concessions on migration?
Throughout the campaign, May sidestepped this question. To get the best deal, she said, Britain needed to unite behind her. She would be a tough negotiator. In the end, everything would somehow work out. It all sounded a little bit like Donald Trump and his secret plan to fix everything.
But if May’s stance on Brexit was oddly slippery, so was Corbyn’s. Britain’s far right has long opposed the European Union because it sees Brussels as a guarantor of the welfare state that hampers the country’s ability to turn itself into an investor’s paradise. Meanwhile, Britain’s far left has long opposed the European Union because it sees Brussels as a guarantor of economic freedoms that hampers the country’s ability to turn itself into a workers’ paradise. This is the camp to which Corbyn has always belonged. But since his party, and most of his backers, strongly favor British membership in the EU, he fudged the issue during last year’s referendum campaign. Purportedly in favour of “Remain,” he refused to make the case for the EU in unambiguous terms and kept criticizing Brussels. In fact, his obstructionism was so evident that most political journalists believe he must have voted for Britain to leave the European Union in the privacy of his voting booth.
Just as Corbyn failed to carve out a clear position in the run-up to the referendum, so he has continued to not offer a clear view since. In fact, his basic position on the EU is astoundingly similar to that of Theresa May: He is in favor of ending free movement but wants to keep tariff-free access to the continent, he says. When asked what choice he would make in the likely case that this wish list should prove unrealistic, he has stonewalled just as effectively as the prime minister.
The great irony of this political moment is that the unexpectedly narrow outcome of the election has opened up the political space for a real debate about the terms of Brexit. May’s bid to get a blank check for the negotiations has failed miserably. To remain in power, she may have to make concessions to two blocks of pro-European politicians: Her precarious standing in Parliament gives a lot more leverage to moderate members of her own party who are horrified at the prospect of pulling out of the single market. And it also hands a veto to her new partners in the DUP, who want to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island at all costs.
A competent Labour leader would seize this opportunity to make a strong push for a soft Brexit that keeps the United Kingdom in the single market and preserves some form of free movement between Britain and the continent. But Corbyn has so far failed to fight for that alternative, or even to force it onto the political agenda in a serious way. So while he has unexpectedly been given a real chance to stop Britain from turning a self-inflicted wound into a suicide pact, it remains unclear whether he even wants to do so—and tragically unlikely that he will.