Theresa May says she needs to call a snap general election because otherwise Labour might derail her Brexit policy. Listening to John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, one would have been hard-pressed to see that much difference between the government’s and the opposition’s position on Brexit.
Meanwhile, at today’s prime minister’s questions, Jeremy Corbyn seemed to want to talk about pretty much everything but Brexit. The leader of the opposition has also foolishly missed a trick by voting for an early election and giving May the two-thirds majority she needed to bypass the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. He should, instead, have brought a motion of no confidence in the PM on the basis that she had dishonestly promised not to hold a snap election. May could have still had her election, using another of the Act’s loopholes, but only if she’d then ordered Tory MPs to back or abstain in the motion of no confidence.
It has been clear since the referendum that Labour is committed to leaving the EU. It even whipped its MPs into voting in favour of triggering Article 50. Today McDonnell made clear that its approach to the single market and customs union weren’t that different from May’s either.
The shadow chancellor said Labour wanted “tariff-free access to the single market”. That is, of course, not the same as membership given that the main barriers to trade in the 21st Century are rules and regulations, not tariffs. It’s also roughly what the government is saying.
Asked whether Labour would agree to free movement of people, McDonnell said it wanted a “managed and fair immigration system from the EU”. Again, one could imagine Philip Hammond, the chancellor, saying something very similar.
McDonnell tried to avoid answering whether a Labour government would be free to cut its own trade deals around the world or stay in the EU’s customs union, which would prevent that. He endlessly mouthed the mantra that we would “maximise the benefits” from the customs union – a piece of political flannel that could have come out of May’s lips – though he finally admitted that we wouldn’t necessarily have full membership of the customs union.
Probably the biggest difference between Labour and the Tories is on what would happen at the end of the Brexit process. McDonnell says the deal would be put to parliament and “possibly the country overall”. May has just promised a take-it-or-leave-it vote; if MPs and peers don’t like what’s negotiated, we’d just crash out without any deal, with dire consequences.
Labour’s position looks better in this regard. But, then again, with words like “possibly” being bandied around, voters will want to scrutinise their manifesto when it is published to make sure.
Edited by Luke Lythgoe