One too hasty, the other taking on a big risk
Christopher Woods had been active in the Liberal Party in Leicestershire in the early 1960s including acting as an election agent. Since the mid 1960s he has been living in the Republic of Ireland. He argues that Jo Swinson should have welcomed Jeremy Corbyn's offer as a basis for discussion while focussing on obtaining a referendum rather than a general election. He also wonders whether Jeremy Corbyn has really thought through the risks to his party and his programme of running Government while trying to manage Brexit negotiations and Brexit itself.
Remainers agree that a coalition of all Remainer M.P.s would probably prevent a no-deal Brexit. Jo Swinson’s curt dismissal of Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal was undiplomatic and seems to have caused disquiet among some of her Lib-Dem colleagues. She might have welcomed the proposal as a basis of discussion whilst pointing out that a necessary qualification for a prospective prime minister in a cross-party caretaker government is universal high regard by participants and that Mr Corbyn has always been a controversial politician (a characteristic he would surely admit). It is not true to say, as he and some Conservatives have said, that it would be ‘unconstitutional’ for him to be passed over in searching for a suitable caretaker prime minister. There was the case of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who was not even an M.P. when appointed prime minister in 1963. What about instead, say, Hilary Benn, chairman of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee, who (unlike Mr Corbyn) has also the merit of previous cabinet experience?
Jo Swinson might also have called for a second referendum on Brexit as a priority instead of Mr Corbyn’s insistence on an early general election to be followed by a referendum (a policy he made clear in his speech at Corby Monday 19 August). A referendum would focus on the main issue. Elections under the British electoral system produce erratic results. Mr Corbyn was encouraged by his candidate’s victory at the Peterborough by-election, but he should be reminded that she received only 31 per cent of the votes cast and that an early election would be as likely to decimate his party as to keep him in office.
The objection to Jeremy Corbyn as a caretaker prime minister on the ground that his ambitious proposals for legislation are dangerous may or may not be another objection that Jo Swinson has in mind. Against this objection it should be argued that as a caretaker prime minister his only concern (apart from the daily business of administration) would be Brexit. He would not be authorised to introduce legislation on other matters. If he attempted to do so he would be prevented by other parties in his coalition. This is surely recognised by the Greens, the S.N.P. and Plaid Cymru. It is recognised by Guto Bebb, the Conservative M.P. who says that Brexit is a greater long-term danger than the unachievable ambitions of a short-term socialist prime minister.
Would it be Machiavellian to suggest to Mr Corbyn that whichever party is in office after Brexit, with or without a deal, Labour or Conservative, it is likely to implode in consequence of its need to limit itself to managing the economic disruption consequential on the U.K. leaving the European Union and that he ought not to wish being in office in that situation at the head of a Labour government? Would Mr Corbyn not more wisely refrain from moving a no-confidence motion? Contrary to what many commentators think, the prime minister has no power to dissolve parliament. This power was removed in 2011 by the Fixed-term Parliament Act. Only a vote of no-confidence not rescinded within two weeks, or a motion to dissolve parliament supported by two thirds of M.P.s (i.e. Conservatives and Labour voting together), would dissolve parliament. But leaving the Conservatives in office with a majority of one and the obligation to steer the country through the severe economic recession forecast by the Treasury, and with no escape from such an invidious position until 2022, would destroy the Conservative party. Surely Mr Corbyn should be wishing destruction on the Conservative party, not putting his own party and himself into such a position?
Other remarks on Brexit
An afterword! It is a general belief among Leavers that a ‘deal’ instead of ‘no-deal’ Brexit would make it unnecessary to reimpose customs controls on the Irish Border. No mere free-trade agreement would allow the common borders of the U.K. and the E.U. to be free of customs controls. Only the U.K. remaining in the European Customs Union and the European Single Market would allow this. No amount of renegotiation could solve the problem. The ‘back-stop’ agreed in December 2017 was merely a means of postponing agreement, it could never be a solution.
There is talk among Leavers and Remainers alike that Brexit would take the U.K. back to 1973, when it joined the European Common Market. I think it would take the U.K. back to 1960 when the U.K., with other European countries, formed the European Free Trade Area (Efta) to establish a close commercial relationship with the Common Market. In the England of 1960 food rationing was a recent memory and foreign-exchange controls were to continue for several years more. Significantly, Ireland, with which the U.K. nowadays does more trade than with China, was not even a member of Efta, British-Irish trade being regulated until 1973 by a series of bilateral trade agreements dating back to the 1930s. Where would the U.K. be after Brexit without any kind of trade agreement with so important a trading partner as Ireland?
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