Granted, the leaked draft of the analysis on Brexit prepared for cabinet ministers didn’t say ‘awful’, but that was the general gist. Under every scenario considered for leaving the EU, Britain would be worse off, with any Brexit bonus from new trade deals hopelessly dwarfed by the losses. It hasn’t been published, a Department for Exiting the European Union source helpfully explained, “because it’s embarrassing”. Well, quite.
It may be wrong, obviously. It could be as wrong as the forecasts George Osborne produced before the referendum, suggesting we’d all fall into a pit of fire shortly after voting to get out, and it will be just as roundly ignored by leave voters now. Economists, what do they know? It’s Remainers who will take it to heart, because everyone likes news that seemingly proves they were right all along.
But if it’s preaching to the converted, uniquely in the Labour party it is also preaching to potential converters; to those millions of members and voters who were never comfortable with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s (and perhaps more importantly John McDonnell’s) instinctively Eurosceptic stance on Brexit and are getting more not less anxious as the cliff edge draws nearer. What the memo suggests is that any future Labour government now risks exchanging one form of self-imposed, avoidable austerity for another; that it just may not have the money to make good on its promises.
The memo will undoubtedly bring existing differences in the cabinet to an explosive head. But the majority of Labour voters, members and MPs who backed remain also have a choice to make. If the forecasts are anything like right, they know what it would do to people who are barely coping now. They get that pain will be disproportionately felt in places — the northeast, parts of the Midlands — that haven’t yet recovered from the last shock. They accepted Corbyn’s insistence on leaving both the single market and the customs union either because they believed “Lexit” — Labour leave — arguments about how austerity couldn’t possibly be unravelled otherwise (briskly challenged in Heidi Alexander and Alison McGovern’s new collection of essays ) or because they were pragmatists who understood that was how you built a winning Labour coalition in places such as Sunderland and Hartlepool.
Only now they’ve seen the polling suggesting Labour Leavers might be wobbling a bit; that voters now back a referendum on the final deal, the baby step Corbyn could perhaps most easily be nudged towards. They desperately want to believe it. The tyranny of hope is kicking in.
Now each doom-laden Brexit story grates more than the last. What’s wrong with Labour? Is it just going to stand by and let people suffer? What’s the point of “empowering the membership” but ignoring their views on something life-changing? Talk of a “jobs-first Brexit” — or as it’s otherwise known, a “jobs-first avoidable recession” — is barely more convincing than Downing Street’s argument that its preferred alternative, the one where we magically achieve a deal that isn’t on offer and that nobody can explain, wasn’t in the memo.
Most Remainers still vastly underestimate how hard even a partial U-turn would be; how betrayed Labour Leavers would feel, how fast anti-immigration feeling could surge again. The only real path back is convincing those who backed Leave out of desperation, because they wanted things to change and people to listen, that Labour has better answers. And even assuming Corbyn could break through to a demographic that’s never really trusted him, that’s the work of years not months. Easier just to hide behind Prime Minister Theresa May, saying as little as possible about Brexit and hoping voters blame the Tories for everything that goes wrong.
But that’s not leadership. It’s not a strategy. It’s barely even a tactic, since at this rate May’s government could fall before a final deal is done. If this is really a government in waiting, it’s time to make some choices.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist.