James Forsyth

The Labour meltdown means Corbyn must choose sides on Brexit

The Labour meltdown means Corbyn must choose sides on Brexit
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These results are dire for both main parties: the Tories finished fifth and Labour third. Theresa May’s resignation has taken some of the sting out of the Tory humiliation, but Jeremy Corbyn finds his leadership under more pressure than it has been since the 2017 general election result. Most worryingly for him, the membership is not behind him on Brexit.

The results for Labour are awful. Look at Scotland and Wales, former Labour strongholds. In Scotland, the Brexit Party came second and Labour finished fifth with just 9 per cent of the votes, down from 26 per cent last time.

In Wales, the Brexit Party won in 19 of the 22 council areas. For the first time ever, Labour has finished behind Plaid Cymru.

Carwyn Jones, a former Welsh Labour First Minister, said that Remain parties collectively beat the Brexit parties: ‘this is why I said we should have put forward a united slate, just like the Brexit Party.’

Can’t hide from hit we took last night.Bringing people together when there’s such a divide was never going to be easy. Now we face prospect of Brexiteer extremist as Tory leader & threat of no deal, we must unite our party & country by taking issue back to people in a public vote

— John McDonnell MP (@johnmcdonnellMP) May 27, 2019

It’s clear that Labour’s strategic ambiguity on Brexit—which worked so well for it in the 2017 general election—is now hurting the party. However much he doesn’t want to, Corbyn is going to have to make a choice – knowing that the process will alienate a part of the Labour electoral coalition. He is shifting towards a second referendum, but with some ambiguity as he talks about a general election as an alternative to that.

He will now come under intense pressure in the next few days to unequivocally back a second referendum in all circumstances. Just look at how hard Emily Thornberry pushed this point on the BBC results programme, saying that ‘there should be a referendum and we should campaign for Remain’. If the party doesn’t move to this position, then they’ll be inviting the Lib Dems and the Greens to take a substantial bite out of their electoral coalition. But the success of the Brexit Party in Wales, the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber shows that if Labour do shift to becoming a second referendum party, then they would be running a risk in some of their traditional seats.

On the Tory side, the results are a reminder that the party cannot afford to go to the country until it has delivered Brexit. If it does, then the Brexit party will stand and—tonight suggests—make it impossible for the Tories to have any chance of winning and, possibly, even threaten its very survival. So, paradoxically, tonight will have both strengthened Tory candidates who are prepared to leave regardless of whether there’s a deal or not and hurt—particularly with MPs—those candidates whose election might prompt a general election. These two groups of candidates are, obviously, one and the same.