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Will Jeremy Corbyn Rescue Britain from its Brexit Disaster?

Summary:
The humiliating rebuff dealt to Prime Minister Theresa May over her compromise proposal to leave the European Union, followed by the failure of a "no confidence" vote the next day, has been described as an unprecedented head-snapping turn of events in British politics. In fact, many such hairpin turns occur in European multiparty parliamentary maneuverings. Ironically, this surreal turn of events does present a way out for Britain before the drop-dead deadline of March 29. But it is up to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, to show the way. Faced with the dreadful consequences of a no-deal Brexit, Britain's fate lies mostly with the question of whether Labour Party discipline breaks down and some of its members support Ms. May's version of a deal, or if a limited number of Tories vote

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The humiliating rebuff dealt to Prime Minister Theresa May over her compromise proposal to leave the European Union, followed by the failure of a "no confidence" vote the next day, has been described as an unprecedented head-snapping turn of events in British politics. In fact, many such hairpin turns occur in European multiparty parliamentary maneuverings. Ironically, this surreal turn of events does present a way out for Britain before the drop-dead deadline of March 29. But it is up to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, to show the way.

Faced with the dreadful consequences of a no-deal Brexit, Britain's fate lies mostly with the question of whether Labour Party discipline breaks down and some of its members support Ms. May's version of a deal, or if a limited number of Tories vote with the opposition for a probably much softer Brexit. With less than 10 weeks to go to Brexit, and the fact that it would probably take a full year to organize a democratically legitimate second referendum on Brexit in accordance with British law, it is too late for another EU referendum in the United Kingdom before the leave occurs.

The European Union has made it clear that it will not make additional concessions to the United Kingdom, especially on the infamous Irish backstop issue. May's loss of more than a hundred Tory members of parliament (MPs) in her Brexit defeat means that she will find it impossible to secure a majority in her party for any kind of deal. She needs the opposition to get it done.

Labour's official policy is to pursue a permanent customs union with the European Union and a close relationship with the single market, which means that May will have to move towards a softer Brexit to get significant Labour support, even if it costs her support in her own party.

Corbyn failed to oust May with a "no confidence" vote, but he would lose in a landslide were an election to occur if he alienates his many voters who want to remain in the European Union. Up to now, his strategy has been to sit on the political fence throughout the entire Brexit process and wait for the Conservatives to make such a mess of Brexit that he could win the next election. Now the polls suggest the voters are ready to reject him over his apparent passivity, if not impotence.

Corbyn's incentive to go for the softest possible Brexit is clear. That would be the so-called Norway+ option in which the United Kingdom would accept EU rules, stay inside the EU customs union, leave free movement of immigrant labor intact, but minimize the impact of Brexit for British businesses and voters.

With backing from the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, Corbyn would require only a limited number of Conservative MPs to win, claiming that he has fulfilled his earlier promise of a soft "Jobs first Brexit." He could also count on support from the Democratic Union Party in Northern Ireland by agreeing to no border infrastructure between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

This scenario would alienate Conservative hard Brexiteers, prompting some to bring down their own government if May were to switch her support to this option. Consequently, this option will probably only work if she opposed it. Realistically the Corbyn rescue would work only if it were attempted at the last minute, because the prime minister would resign or be forced out, resulting in an early election. Jeremy Corbyn might get his new general election, but only at the price of supporting the softest possible Brexit first.

The 27 remaining members of the European Union should therefore insist that the UK Parliament approve this arrangement before extending the deadline on a Withdrawal Agreement, probably around mid-March. In other words, disaster can be averted if enough MPs "do the right thing" and vote for a soft alternative to the chaos of a no-deal Brexit.

The softest possible Brexit would also have other political advantages in the United Kingdom. It would solve the Northern Irish border issue but also rob the Scottish nationalists of an important argument for Scottish independence, as all of the United Kingdom would remain inside the single market and free movement of labor would continue to apply. Corbyn may emerge battered while knowing that his legacy would have been the destruction of the Conservative Party.

Jacob Funk Kirkegaard
Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior fellow, has been associated with the Institute since 2002. Before joining the Institute, he worked with the Danish Ministry of Defense, the United Nations in Iraq, and in the private financial sector. He is a graduate of the Danish Army's Special School of Intelligence and Linguistics with the rank of first lieutenant; the University of Aarhus in Aarhus, Denmark; the Columbia University in New York; and received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies.

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