Why Labour's election reluctance goes beyond no-deal Brexit fears

Dan Sabbagh
Photograph: Handout/EPA

Boris Johnson’s hopes of achieving Brexit by his “do or die” deadline of 31 October may look increasingly remote, but there is little immediate sign that Labour is going to be able to capitalise.

The Conservatives already enjoy a healthy poll lead of 10 points, on average, according to Britain Elects, with the government on 35%. That leaves Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition on 25%, while the Liberal Democrats sit at 18%.

It is a figure so dismal that the party is behind where Michael Foot was in the run-up to the 1983 election, according to the elections expert John Curtice of Strathclyde University – and would result in a Conservative majority of about 60 on forecasts prepared by Electoral Calculus based on October’s polling. And this is with Nigel Farage’s Brexit party at 12%.

The same firm’s regional analysis has the Conservatives losing seats in Scotland to the dominant Scottish National party and the south-west to the Liberal Democrats. But it is forecast to win far more straight from Labour in Wales (where the Tories are ahead), Yorkshire, the north-westof England and in the West and east Midlands – where elections are lost and won.

Johnson’s Brexit deal has already landed better than Theresa May’s did last November – which included a number of resignations from cabinet. The circumstances are different: when the 29 March deadline was missed that was the final straw for May after an extended period of Tory feuding.

The polling firm Deltapoll believes that Johnson is better able to rally the Conservative base. Joe Twyman, a founder of the firm, said: “Johnson is trusted by leave voters in a way that May was not; our sense is that few leave voters will blame the prime minister for the latest Brexit extension in the short term.”

Deltapoll’s research showed that 32% of the British public supported the deal, marginally more than the 29% that were set against it. Equally as significant, 39% were undecided – giving Labour something to play for if it could reset opinion with its warnings about the economic impact or lack of protection for workers’ rights.

 

The new Brexit deal is essentially the old Brexit deal with a new chapter on the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and a few key tweaks to the political declaration. Here is a link to the full text.

 

The backstop is replaced

 

The backstop has essentially been replaced by a full stop whereby Northern Ireland remains aligned to the EU from the end of the transition period for at least four years. A change can only happen if it is voted on by the Stormont assembly.

 

Consent

 

Stormont will have a key role in future Brexit arrangements. And if there is cross-community support to remain aligned to the EU rather than the UK the consent will hold for eight years.

The arrangements in this deal will automatically kick in for a mandated four years if there is a breakdown in trade talks, so it remains a “backstop” but with a permanent tinge.

That four-year period will start at the end of December 2020.

Two months before the end of the four-year period, that is October 2024, Stormont will be asked to vote on whether to remain aligned to the EU in ways outlined by this deal or not.

 

Checks on border, ports and airports

 

Under the deal, the UK and the EU are “underlining their firm commitment to no customs and regulatory checks or controls and related physical infrastructure at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”.

 

Future trade deals

 

The EU and the UK will aim for a zero-tariff deal with unlimited quotas. The entire UK, including Northern Ireland, will be free to sign trade deals. The line in the political declaration that “the United Kingdom will consider aligning with union rules in relevant areas” in any future trade talks has been ditched.

 

Customs

 

Northern Ireland will remain legally in the UK customs territory but practically in the EU customs unions. There will therefore be no customs checks on the border but tariffs will be payable on certain commercial goods.

No customs duties will be payable on “personal property” being transited from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That protects online shopping and all items bought for personal rather than commercial use.

Customs duties will be payable on goods imported from the UK for commercial use unless it can be demonstrated that the goods remain in Northern Ireland or are for personal use, as above.

A system of rebates will allow importers to be reimbursed.

 

West/east trade

 

The commitment to frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is restated.

 

VAT

 

EU law on VAT will apply in Northern Ireland.

 

Single electricity market

 

The island of Ireland is considering a single market for electricity so homes in Northern Ireland can get their energy from a supplier in Northern Ireland or the republic. There were fears this could be disrupted by Brexit. Under the Johnson deal, the provisions of union law remain so nothing will change.

 

Level playing field

 

This guarantees that the UK will remain in line with EU conventions on climate, environment and workers rights in a future trade agreement.

Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent

 

The high proportion of deal undecideds underscores the volatility that remains a well-remarked feature of the political scene. During October, Conservative poll leads have varied between three and 15 points, making a hung parliament with the Tories as the largest party a very real possibility.

A fortnight ago, the British Election Study – providing long-running research on voting behaviour – reported the two most volatile elections in postwar history were 2015 followed by 2017, where 43% and 33% of voters respectively opted for a different party than the one they had voted for in previous elections.

Related: Uncertainty over Brexit will make election hard to call – study

The argument is that traditional loyalties have been eroded by a series of shocks: the financial crash, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, the Scottish referendum and Brexit. But, despite what some Labour MPs were hoping for, it is hard to believe the latest Brexit delay represents a shock in itself.

An election, Twyman observed, would be “a major gamble” for both parties, but in Westminster Conservative MPs are keener. It is easy to find anxious Labour MPs sitting on small majorities – and even ones with larger majorities in inner-city seats who are fretting about the unambiguously pro-remain Liberal Democrats and the response to Corbyn on the doorstep.

Labour insiders countered by saying the 2017 result showed that, in an election campaign, the focus should broaden from Brexit, and the party’s anti-austerity agenda would again prove popular. The party’s problem is that Conservatives are prepared for this too, having increased school funding and police numbers.

Corbyn and other Labour figures have said they want an election once no deal has been “taken off the table”. Against this polling background it would not be surprising, however, if the opposition party found more reasons for delay.

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