Anyone who has ever seen Prime Minister (PM) Theresa May battle Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons would find it borderline impossible to imagine any kind meaningful political union between the two parties. Historically, the Tories (as Conservatives are known locally) and Labour vehemently disagree on practically everything in contemporary politics – from austerity, to corporate taxation, unions, education, and far more. And yet, as the PM nervously clings to her so-called Chequers deal – her vision for Britain’s future relationship with the European Union (EU) and the basis for her upcoming Brexit negotiations – an unholy alliance of desperation and convenience is brewing between the two parties.
Key Brexit-supporting Tory Members of Parliament (MPs) are deeply dismayed by the Chequers deal, saying that it fails to deliver the ‘hard Brexit’ for which the people voted, and are therefore threatening to abandon their leader should it come to a vote in the House of Commons. On the other side Labour MPs have been ordered by their leader Corbyn to vote against Chequers on the basis that it fails to meet the six tests the left-leaning party have set to establish their definition of what a good Brexit deal would be. Were May’s Chequers deal to be voted down in the House of Commons, it would effectively end her time as PM and – as Corbyn hopes – will likely lead to another general election, which the Labour leader would hope to win. Given the vitriol between the two leading British political parties, one might take it as a given that Labour would only be delighted by the idea of a Tory PM battling desperately for her political life with enemies of all persuasions knocking on the gates of 10 Downing Street.
And yet, politics are not so simple these days, something that holds true for both the Tories and Labour. There are potentially over 30 Labour MPs who are strongly considering defying their leader and supporting the PM’s Chequers deal as they fear the economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit. Such is the depth of their concern that will consider betraying Corbyn even if it means inadvertently propping May up and keeping Labour out of power. On the other side, the most dogmatic Brexiteer Tory MPs – chief among whom Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, David Davis and Steve Baker – along with another 30 or so of their parliamentary colleagues are poised to defy May and vote down Chequers, presumably to preserve their slim hopes of a pristine hard Brexit. Of course, they must be aware that failing to support May might come back to bite them, particularly if toppling her brings forth another general election that results in Labour, not them, in the Brexit negotiation driver’s seat, a scenario which some have suggested might see Brexit called off entirely. What we have in front of us is a near perfect syllogism by which both parties are putting their Brexit concerns and aspirations over traditional party politics and ambitions.
Despite Labour MPs overwhelmingly supporting Britain’s EU membership, there are seven in their ranks, with the notable inclusion of leader Corbyn, who can be classified as Euro-skeptics or even ‘card-carrying’ Brexiteers. Yet, even beyond this minority group there are a wide range of Labour MPs who represent Brexit-heavy constituencies, which means that many will be forced to consider abandoning their own views to pander to their voters’. Beyond this awkward dilemma, for Labour MPs a May-brokered deal is vastly preferred to a no deal Brexit. As such they will face what one shadow minister referred to as a ‘crisis of conscience’: on one side the party leader telling MPs to vote ‘no’ to Chequers and help catapult Labour into government; on the other side the wishes of Brexit-voting constituents and the havoc a no-deal Brexit might wreak on Britain’s stuttering economy.
Labour MP Kevan Jones from North Durham is among the many in this predicament and he indicated that he would be open to supporting Chequers in Parliament. He said: ‘I would not support [a] no-deal [Brexit] because that would be disastrous both for my constituents and the country.’ Jones’ Labour colleague Lisa Nandy, MP, is also worried about how a no-deal Brexit might affect her Wigan constituency, and if what May brings to parliament is deemed good enough she will feel pressure to support it. Nandy said: ‘The public wants [Brexit] over, they are fed up with this and want it done so the government can get on with other difficult decisions. There is a push from the public to just sort this out.’ Another Labour colleague anonymously added that while it will not be easy for Labour MPs to defy Corbyn and back a Tory government – far from the neat and tidy solution that Labour would merely stroll into 10 Downing Street in another general election – there is a real threat that an ideological hard Brexiter like Rees-Mogg might be the next PM who will pursue either a hard Brexit or a no-deal Brexit. Therefore, even with the false choice of two unappealing alternatives; i.e. Chequers or a no deal Brexit, May’s vision for some Labour MPs might seem the more palatable.
Within May’s Conservative party it is clear that those who oppose Chequers will not budge and will vote it down in Parliament if given the opportunity. One might say that this is rank and brazen stupidity (if one were a Tory and/or Brexit voter) as surely a Chequers Brexit is better than risking an even softer Brexit or even no Brexit at all under a Labour government. And yet Rees-Mogg and his eurosceptic crew are prepared to risk this and topple May’s government if it is the only remote way to achieve their perfect hard Brexit.
With daggers pointed at May from all directions, will she accept re-enforcements from her sworn enemy? One would imagine that reaching across the aisle, as it were, would be among the bigger ‘no brainers’ in the PM’s career… That is, if she’s given the opportunity. Yes, despite the borderline impossible situation May is facing domestically, there is a tangible threat that she many never be able to give her Labour colleagues the chance to save her Brexit bacon. Upon hearing the details of Chequers EU leaders, chief among whom President of the European Council Donald Tusk, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, rejected it out of hand based on its solution for avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; i.e. what will be the only land border between the EU and UK. Chequers sets out a vision whereby the whole of the UK would remain in the EU custom union for a limited time while a reasonable trade solution is worked out. EU leaders have said such a concept is unacceptable, which means that as things currently stand, there is serious doubt as to whether the EU will even consider entertaining Chequers in its current form. If the EU rejects Chequers, it will never ever be put to a vote in the House of Commons, making May’s unlikely Labour allies irrelevant.
And yet, in the event that May’s political shrewdness out-maneuvers her European counterparts and she manages to bring a Chequers-inspired Brexit deal back to Parliament, will Labour’s support even be enough? Not only have there been estimates of up to 80 Tory MPs who view Chequers suspiciously, on a good day May’s government only has a majority – albeit a slim one – in the House of Commons only because she is propped up by the 10 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs from Northern Ireland. Depending on the agreement May makes regarding the Irish border, the DUP’s support may be called into question. In a scenario in which she is coerced to accept a version of the EU’s solution for the Irish border – their so-called ‘backstop’ that would see Northern Ireland remain in the EU customs union and single market on a temporary basis while the rest of the UK existed on the outside – the DUP would withdraw its support from Chequers. In the words of Arlene Foster – leader of the DUP – her party’s only ‘red line’ is a situation in which Northern Ireland is treated differently in customs or constitutionally than the rest of the UK. She said: ‘We don’t know what will happen in five or 10 years’ time. We don’t want Northern Ireland going off in a different direction from the rest of the UK.’ To say that the PM is in a tight spot is an understatement, as it is clear a sleight of hand or some other magic trick will be necessary to resolve the conflicting needs of the EU and the DUP just to give willing Labour MPs a hope and a prayer at turning her Brexit vision into law.