Brexit High Court ruling is no laughing matter - for the Remainers, it's an emergency

European Union supporters are seen staging a protest outside the High Court in October 2016. Gina Miller's challenge to Brexit brought victory in the High Court but may still spell trouble for the Progressive side

Monday, November 7, 2016

The temptation for progressives and pro-Europeans to revel in the glorious ironies of last week's High Court ruling has proved, understandably, irresistible. 

Having supposedly fought for decades to restore the ancient rights of the Westminster parliament, the pro-Brexit brigade have, at a stroke, been deliciously exposed as bog-standard authoritarians scrabbling around to find any excuse for sidelining the people's elected representatives and the rule of British law. The theoretical prospect of a Brexit government ending up begging the European Court to overturn the decision of British judges to uphold the powers of the British parliament is just too exquisite for words.

But any triumphalism over these developments is wholly misplaced. In many ways, the High Court has taken a slow-burning crisis for progressives and turned it into a full-blown and immediate emergency. 

To understand why the true weakness lies on the pro-European side, it's only necessary to take the quickest of glances at the latest opinion polls. The Tory lead in recent weeks has been overwhelming, reaching as high as 18 points. If Theresa May is backed into a corner by the court ruling and decides that an early general election is the only way of clearing the path for the hard Brexit she's hellbent on delivering, it's difficult to see how she can be thwarted.

The feeble Fixed Term Parliaments Act is certainly no obstacle. The Prime Minister has almost an embarrassment of options for dealing with that - she could simply use her majority to repeal it, or she could secure the necessary two-thirds majority for an election by shaming Labour into voting in favour, or she could even order her own troops to vote the government down on a tactical motion of no confidence. Once an election is triggered, winning the prize of a hard Brexit parliament to go with our hard Brexit government will look as straightforward a task as an American invasion of Liechtenstein.  

Make no mistake - this impending disaster is largely the handiwork of the so-called "moderate" Labour plotters. Yes, they can claim with some justification that Jeremy Corbyn was never going to defeat Theresa May in an early general election, regardless of circumstance. But the flaw in that argument is that Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall or Owen Smith wouldn't have had a cat in hell's chance either.  The only game in town was to make the best of a bad job and get behind the elected leader, whoever that person was. Instead, with their bungled coup attempt, the plotters played fast and loose with the most fundamental rule of British politics – that electorates always punish divided parties.

It's very difficult to put the genie back into the bottle now. You can’t spend three months telling anyone who will listen that Jeremy Corbyn is unfit to be leader of your own party, and then expect the public to take heed when you advocate a course of action that would result in Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. But in an emergency, all you can do is try. 

The plotters got their party and their country into this mess, and it’s their clear moral duty to at least attempt to get us all back out of it again.  The alternative is to risk a cataclysmic defeat that would make 1983 look like the Attlee landslide, and that might take two or three decades to recover from. They spent the summer fatuously chanting “but we can’t do anything unless we’re in power, Jeremy!” – well, now’s the time to prove that getting the Tories out really does trump every other consideration for them.

There’s only one way it can conceivably be done in the real world. The notion of a new Remain party being hurriedly cobbled together on the eve of an election to fill the “vacuum” left by Corbyn’s leadership is an idle Blairite fantasy. It wouldn’t work because it would be in direct competition with Labour, and the electoral system will hammer a Left that is split into two evenly-matched parties. 

But the flip-side of this problem is that a Left that is totally united could be handsomely rewarded. This will require the Labour plotters to “endure the unendurable”, as a certain Japanese emperor once said – not only must they come to terms with Corbyn as their candidate for Prime Minister, but they must also finally lay to rest their irrational age-old hatred of the Scottish National Party. Without Nicola Sturgeon’s help, an anti-Tory majority in the next House of Commons is a non-starter.

There are various models for an emergency progressive alliance, ranging from a full-blown electoral pact to an informal non-aggression agreement. But the basis for some kind of unity is now clear. 

The SNP, the Corbynites, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems and the Labour plotters are all prioritising continued access to the European single market, which is a shared goal that may capture the imaginations of the despondent 48% of Britons who voted to Remain. If the progressive parties are fighting the Tories and UKIP rather than each other, seats could be won on well under 50% of the vote in majority-Leave areas.  Even if ousting the government proved an impossible task, Labour losses might be kept to a minimum, and Britain might still have a parliament with a natural majority in favour of a softer Brexit.

It’s a slim hope. But if Labour MPs don’t wake up to the realities of the situation, there may soon be no hope at all.  

James Kelly's blog, Scot goes POP!, is among the most popular political blogs in the UK. He has also contributed to a number of newspapers and magazines.

You can check out the blog here or follow James on Twitter.