It now seems more likely than ever that the UK will leave with no deal at the end of the year. But let’s imagine for a moment that I’m wrong and the UK and the EU manage to overcome their substantial differences. It would then have to be voted on in Parliament – and Labour should vote it down.
Why? Because the deal put before the Commons would not be between Brexit and Remain. That ship has long since sailed. It would instead be between the thin deal Boris Johnson will have agreed with the EU and the choice of leaving with no deal whatsoever. Whichever way Parliament votes, we leave the transitional arrangements on 1 January in full. So if Labour vote against the deal, they would not be 'denying Brexit'; they would, in fact, be tacitly voting for the kind of Brexit that the most hardcore Brexiteers are after. In voting down the deal, they would probably be marching through the lobby with Steve Baker and other ERG types.
By rejecting the deal in Parliament, Labour would also be doing something that both Remainers and Leavers want, albeit for different reasons. Some Remainers would like the deal voted down because they don’t want Johnson’s Brexit to be validated, regardless of the consequences; and a great many Leavers simply want no deal. Labour would, oddly, be pleasing both sides in doing their part, by blowing up a deal at the finish line.
But this all goes much deeper than that. If a deal is reached this week, Nigel Farage will almost certainly scream 'betrayal'. He will say that the deal that’s been reached isn’t 'real Brexit', something particularly galling given 'clean Brexit' was weeks away from being realised. Then, when the fallout from leaving the transition period hits, the Reform gang will be able to blame it mostly, if not fully, on the Johnson deal.
Yet if Labour vote for it, the agreement won’t just be owned by Boris and his party, but by Keir Starmer and those who sit behind him. Farage would be able to blame 'bad Brexit' on both the Conservative and Labour parties at the same time; an establishment stitch-up to deny Britain its sunlit uplands. By voting for the deal just to please Leavers, Labour could instead be handing the hardcore Brexiteers the exact ammunition to most hurt them on the topic in the years ahead.
Some Labour voters won't be convinced, arguing that if Labour vote against the deal and there is enough of a backbench revolt by the ERG bunch, then we’ll have no deal and it will be partly Labour’s fault. To which I would say: stop sounding like the Lib Dems. No, ending up with a no-deal Brexit will not be Labour’s fault in this instance. It was Boris who decided to pursue the negotiating strategy that led to a choice between a bad deal and no deal; it is not Keir Starmer’s job as leader of the opposition to support the government when they don’t manage to make the mark.
Labour should feel free to say, 'This deal isn’t good enough to earn our support', regardless of the consequences. Particularly given the fact that the disruption that would happen under a weak deal would not be all that much less than what will be felt in a no-deal scenario. The choice here, again, is not between a deal that, while suboptimal, nonetheless solves most of the major issues presented by leaving the EU and leaving with nothing whatsoever, but between no deal and no deal plus.
Of course, this argument is quite likely to end up being merely academic: it seems increasingly hard to see how a deal can be thrashed out over the coming days given the size of the gap between the two sides. Yet if a miracle happens and there is an agreement between the EU and UK in the next few days, Labour must avoid what is a clear trap. Starmer needs to avoid fighting the last war on the wrong terms and just reject the deal.