Robert Jackman

Tony Blair exposes Labour’s Brexit cynicism

Tony Blair exposes Labour's Brexit cynicism
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Tony Blair has urged Labour MPs to vote against Theresa May’s deal when it comes to the Commons. In a speech at the British Academy this afternoon, Blair described the deal as 'pointless' and added that it was 'gut-wrenching' that Labour was not doing more to get a second referendum. 

Blair’s views on Brexit aren’t much of a surprise. But it’s interesting to note the similarity for once between Blair’s position and the official Labour line: both are focused on voting down the deal in support of what they see as a bigger goal. 

Similar, that is, apart from one crucial detail: while Blair wants a second referendum, Jeremy Corbyn is manoeuvring for a general election.

All the signs so far (including from Rebecca Long-Bailey’s excruciatingly evasive Today interview this morning) are that Corbyn will instruct Labour MPs to vote down the Brexit deal, regardless of the content (which is bad news, if nothing else, for the Tory whips hoping to rely on moderate Labour votes when the deal goes to the Commons next month).

Instead Corbyn hopes that by defeating the deal Labour can bring down the government and force a general election. This is the key to understanding Labour’s position on Brexit: it’s fundamentally about the party’s self-interest. And even though it’s cynical, it is working well.

In the aftermath of the referendum, there were plenty of predictions that Brexit would prove to be a nightmare for Labour. The theory was that Brexit would force the party to choose between its northern heartlands and metropolitan membership, thus slicing its support in half. As it turns out, Corbyn’s tactic of maintaining ‘strategic ambiguity’ in refusing to express any clear position has been a masterstroke: Labour has managed to hang on to its support in Leave-voting areas while still taking every opportunity to make Brexit as big a headache as possible for the Tories.

When Labour politicians are cornered into giving a comment on Brexit, they tend to focus purely on the personalities, rather than the policy. The current line to take – and one which is being pushed furiously by Corbyn and his supporters on Twitter – is that the government’s handling of the negotiations has been “shambolic”. Notice, though, how Corbyn’s team refuse to say what they’d have actually done differently, or what they would have demanded from the EU. They just ask people to believe in Corbyn’s innate competence to get a better deal. 

But then this sums up Labour’s stance on Brexit: cynical, unprincipled, and oddly cult-like. By contrast, Blair’s unashamed belief that Britain should stay put in the EU seems refreshingly honest.