Brexit Britain is a “new political landscape”, in which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party could find itself squeezed on all sides, according to a new report marking six months since the referendum result.
The UK in a Changing Europe thinktank argues that the past six months have been the most tumultuous period in British politics since the second world war, with a new prime minister; leadership challenges in Labour and Ukip; the creation of two major new Whitehall departments; and Scottish independence back on the agenda, as well as the prospect of leaving the European Union.
“While none of these alone is unprecedented, there has been no moment in the post-war period when so much has happened almost at once,” says Simon Usherwood.
“Brexit is partly a function of, but is also partly bringing about, a new UK political landscape,” says Anand Menon, UK in a Changing Europe’s director.
Menon, professor of politics at Kings College, London, highlights the rapidly shifting political mood, with MPs on both sides of the House of Commons quickly moving to support restrictions on immigration, as they interpret the referendum result, and subsequent polling, as a clear rejection of the EU’s policy of free movement.
“It has been striking to see how former remainers among Conservative MPs have swung behind the prospect of even a hard Brexit,” he says in his contribution to the report.
Menon argues this political climate will make it unlikely that parliament will exercise much leverage before the government triggers article 50 next March, because so few MPs will want to be seen to block Brexit or argue against the continuation of free movement implied by soft Brexit.
It is unclear which parties will benefit from this period of political volatility, the report argues – but it looks unlikely to be Labour. Political scientist Matthew Goodwin uses his essay, Brexit, Six Months On, to argue that the referendum campaign, “exposed a deep and widening divide in the political geography of Labour support”.
He points to the fact that nearly 70% of Labour-held constituencies voted for Brexit. It is estimated that some, including Ruth Smeeth’s Stoke-on-Trent North and Ed Miliband’s Doncaster North, backed leaving the EU with 70% of the vote or more.
By contrast, in some metropolitan Labour constituencies, including Corbyn’s Islington North and Chuka Ummuna’s Streatham, more than 70% of voters voted to remain.
”This tension between working-class, struggling, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration, and more financially secure, middle class, pro-EU and cosmopolitan wings poses strategic dilemmas for Labour and provides opportunities for its main rivals,” he argues.
Labour MPs appear deeply divided about immigration, with shadow home secretary Diane Abbott warning against the party becoming “Ukip-lite”, while Andy Burnham suggested ignoring voters’ concerns could even provoke violence. Goodwin says Ukip, under new leader Paul Nuttall, is likely to target seats which saw a strong Brexit vote, and where Ukip came second in the 2015 general election.
“Should the Liberal Democrats, rather than Labour, manage to project themselves as a ‘new’ political home for remainers who loathe Brexit and the Conservative party, but also despair of Corbyn’s leadership, then in some seats this holds the potential to divide the more socially liberal and remain-focused group of voters, at the same time as Ukip is trying to win over working-class voters who used to support Labour,” according to Goodwin.
”In pro-remain Labour seats where the Liberal Democrats are already second, Labour could find itself further squeezed by the beginnings of a realignment, in seats like Hornsey and Wood Green, Bristol West, Cambridge, Bermondsey and Old Southwark, and Cardiff Central.”
In Labour’s northern heartland seats, much may depend on the ability of Ukip to get its act together, according to Menon, who says the Conservatives could also gain if May manages to achieve what he calls a “hard Brexit, wrapped in immigration language”.
”The Conservative government is signalling its desire to try to attract former Labour voters, with its appeals to those who are just about managing. Achieving an exit from the EU that ends freedom of movement could form a logical part of this strategy.”
The by-election in Copeland, where Labour MP Jamie Reed is stepping down, is likely to provide an early test in the new year of whether the party will find itself squeezed.
Other essays in the report spell out what we have learned so far about how the government is approaching Brexit – and how the other 27 EU states may respond.
Jonathan Portes, of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, argues that as far as immigration is concerned, it remains unclear what exactly the government is hoping to achieve. “Progress can be only limited until ministers agree their negotiating objective and key priorities,” he says.
Both currently appear a long way off, with some – such as the chancellor and business secretary – regarding as important the single market and business’s ability to recruit the workers it needs, while the prime minister appears to see restoring full control over immigration policy and reducing migrant numbers as taking precedence.
Economist Angus Armstrong uses his chapter to argue that the formal procedure of invoking article 50 will be less important than how the other EU countries respond. But with a series of elections in key states, and many other pressing issues on the EU agenda, he says, “the likely scenario is one of familiar EU negotiating territory: long interludes of tedium and small print, interspersed with episodes of late-night brinkmanship, leading eventually to a compromise that satisfies no-one but with which everyone can live”.
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