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The British election outcome will not stop Brexit. Here’s why

The leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn speaks at Paston Farm Centre, in Paston near Peterborough, Britain, January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville - RTX2YCI0

The aftermath of the British election has inevitably led to discussion about its effect on Brexit.  Some people fear and others hope that it will either stop Brexit from taking place entirely or will so water Brexit down as to make it essentially meaningless.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and a good starting point to explain why is to look first at the two party leaders: Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Theresa May famously voted Remain in last year’s Brexit referendum, though since then she has become increasingly identified as the supporter of ‘hard Brexit’ ie. a Brexit that takes Britain wholly out of the single European market and the various European institutions in a way that would permit Britain to reimpose immigration controls.

Since the election a fringe theory has been doing the rounds that Theresa May intentionally engineered the election outcome in order to stop or water down Brexit.  This is based on the fact that Theresa May voted Remain in the Brexit referendum and that the election has supposedly increased the anti-Brexit majority in the British parliament, making it more difficult for the Conservative government to get its ‘hard Brexit’ policy through.

This theory is nonsense.  Theresa May is many things but she is no Kamikaze.  The idea that her loyalty to the EU project is so fanatical that she would deliberately destroy her political reputation and put in jeopardy her whole career so as to engineer an election outcome that would make ‘hard Brexit’ more difficult is beyond farfetched.

A far more valid point to make about Theresa May is that though she has voiced support for ‘hard Brexit’ in reality she has no Brexit plan at all, and has shown no interest or ability to form one

Thus she delayed for months invoking Article 50, never spelt out a negotiating policy, never undertook a review of what the implications of Brexit would be for British society and for the British economy, never came out with any plans or proposals of how to deal with them, and only edged towards saying she supported ‘hard Brexit’ when forced to do so by the Courts.

When Theresa May did eventually invoke Article 50 – on an arbitrarily chosen date in March, picked so far as I can tell at random – she still had no plan or proposal for Brexit to put forward, as became painfully obvious during her disastrous encounter with EU President Jean-Claude Juncker in Downing Street at the end of April.  Instead, in order to conceal her lack of a plan, she made the preposterous request to Juncker that Britain’s entire Brexit negotiation be conducted in secret.

Up against Merkel, Schauble, the European Commission, and the Germans, this total absence of preparation would have set up Britain for disaster.  The outcome would not have been a ‘hard Brexit’, and it would certainly not have been no deal at all, an option Theresa May has foolishly floated but which the British economy with its structural budget and trade deficits and its heavy dependence on foreign investment is in no condition to accept.  Rather it would have been a heavily lopsided Brexit deal, suiting the EU Commission and the Germans, and putting Britain at a permanent disadvantage.

If Theresa May is not the person who can be relied upon to deliver a ‘hard Brexit’, what can be said about Jeremy Corbyn?

Unlike Theresa May – who prior to becoming Prime Minister is never known to have expressed any concerns about the EU at all – Corbyn for much of his political life outright opposed it.  During the referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 1975 he is known to have voted to leave it.

Around 1990 Corbyn, together with most of the Labour Party, was won over by the promises of a ‘social Europe’ made by the then EU Commissioner Jacques Delors.  However he has never been a fulsome supporter of the EU, and as the EU has pursued a more integrationist and neoliberal agenda he has steadily become more critical.  Many of his closest political friends have remained staunch opponents.

By the time of the Brexit referendum last year Corbyn’s loyalty to the EU was doubted by most of his MPs, who blamed him – wrongly – for the referendum’s outcome, and who accused him – falsely and on no evidence – of voting Leave.

Since the Brexit referendum Corbyn has resisted intense pressure from the Labour Party’s Blairite establishment to take an openly anti-Brexit position.  Instead – to the intense anger of the Blairites in the Labour Party and their supporters in the media – he has repeatedly made clear that he accepts the referendum’s outcome, and treats the whole issue of Brexit as settled.  In Corbyn’s own words, uttered at the start of the election campaign

This election isn’t about Brexit itself. That issue has been settled. The question now is what sort of Brexit do we want – and what sort of country do we want Britain to be after Brexit?

These words show a far better understanding of what preparing for Brexit involves than anything Theresa May has ever said.

The coup that the Blairites launched against Corbyn last year, and which was intended to oust him from his leadership of the Labour Party, was launched precisely because Corbyn was blamed by the Blairites for Brexit, and was refusing to speak out against it.

The election outcome has wholly vindicated Corbyn’s stance.  By accepting Brexit he was able to win back the millions of left leaning working class voters in places like Hartlepool who had voted for Brexit.  Had Corbyn opposed Brexit, or appeared reluctant to support it, Theresa May’s strategy of appealing to these voters would have paid off, and the election would have resulted in the Conservative landslide and Labour wipe-out that many people before the election had been expecting.

The election in fact provides no comfort for opponents of Brexit.  The Liberal Democrats and the SNP – the two parties which oppose Brexit and which continue to support the EU – did very badly, with the Liberal Democrats picking up a few seats here and there but failing to increase their share of the vote over their disastrous result in the election in 2015, whilst the SNP in Scotland lost ground to both the Conservatives and Labour.  UKIP, Nigel Farage’s party – incompetently led in this election by Paul Nuttall with no clear programme or purpose – collapsed, with its voters transferring to the Conservatives and Labour, both of whose leaders accept Brexit.

The actual outcome of this election is that there is no significant political force left in Britain which now opposes Brexit.  Both the Conservative and Labour leaderships are committed to it, with both understanding that the future of their parties depends on their supporting it.  In Corbyn’s case leaving the EU is in line with his personal political beliefs, whilst in Theresa May’s case the issue does not arise because she doesn’t have any.  As for the parties that might still seek to oppose Brexit – the Liberal Democrats and the SNP – both are in eclipse.

The big question is not whether there will be Brexit.  It is – in Jeremy Corbyn’s words – “what sort of Brexit do we want – and what sort of country do we want Britain to be after Brexit?”

The mere fact that Jeremy Corbyn has the understanding of the issue to ask this question – something which Theresa May, hiding behind her inane slogan”Brexit means Brexit”, has never done – shows that he is almost certainly the better person to answer it, and to conduct Britain’s negotiations with the EU, than Theresa May is or can ever be.

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