Euan McColm: Brexit policy Labour should give its eyeteeth for

To the growing list of senior politicians who appear to have completely lost their minds over Brexit, we must now add the name Emily Thornberry.

Liberal Democrat leader 
Jo Swinson delivers her first keynote speech at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Bournemouth last week. Picture: Finnbarr Webster/Getty
Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson delivers her first keynote speech at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Bournemouth last week. Picture: Finnbarr Webster/Getty

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary has added considerably to the black farce of the current political crisis with her take on the Liberal Democrats’ announcement that they would, in the unlikely event of them winning the next general election, simply cancel the UK’s departure from the EU. This policy, says Thornberry, shows the Lib Dems are “kind of Taliban”.

By any measure, this is an idiotic take. But this is where we are. This is how low Labour has sunk under the pitiful leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

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Thornberry’s remarks to The House magazine came after Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson said that if she became prime minister before the Brexit deed was done, her government would revoke Article 50.

The Labour frontbencher was not alone in reacting furiously to this position. From across the political spectrum came howls of anger. The Lib Dems were undemocratic, they were prepared to treat the electorate with contempt.

For sure, in these divided times, they are plenty of voters ready to lap up these attacks on Swinson.

But polls published in the aftermath of the row over the policy showed that others are not quite so furiously angry. One showed the Lib Dems in second place behind Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party while other had them just a point behind Labour.

If it was running candidates in the next UK general election, the Taliban would kill for polling results like those.

Of course, people who cling to the belief that Brexit will mean a great national liberation are not going to like Swinson’s policy. Of course, they are going to attack it. But it is not, no matter how loudly they screech, undemocratic.

In order for the Lib Dems to be able to revoke Article 50 and stop Brexit in its tracks, the party would have to win a majority at the next general election. Swinson would require a democratic mandate to do what she wants. How depressing that this perfectly obvious fact is ignored by the likes of Thornberry.

In Scotland, we have more experience than our neighbours on these islands of living through the aftermath of a binary referendum. We understand how referendums can impact on subsequent voter behaviour.

Following the 2014 independence referendum, the SNP received a considerable boost to its electoral fortunes.

Anyone who’d voted Yes in the referendum wasn’t about to back Labour or the Conservatives, were they?

But the nationalists weren’t the only ones to turn the result of the referendum to their advantage. Under Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories styled themselves the defenders of the Union. While Labour squirmed and wobbled on the constitutional question, Davidson was unequivocal that a vote for her party was a vote to prevent a second independence referendum.

In the 2016 Holyrood election, the Conservatives knocked Labour into third place.

The Lib Dems’ position on Brexit makes perfect political sense to me.

While career-long Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn refuses, against the wishes of the majority of his party members, to take a firm anti-Brexit position, Swinson has the space to become the champion of those who believe that departure from the EU will have catastrophic consequences.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now fighting for Brexit at any cost. He would rather “die in a ditch” than ask the EU to postpone our departure date of 31 October.

Idiots and the terminally naive may believe that such a clear position can be defeated by nuance (or prevarication, as in the case of Corbyn). It cannot.

Brexit dominates our politics and divides the electorate. There is no mileage to be gained by opposition parties in trying to win over those now rallying around Johnson’s No Deal flag. Rather, the prize – the only prize currently on offer – is becoming the leading opponent to Johnson’s Brexit “plan”.

Labour is currently bogged down in yet another crisis of its own making. A now abandoned plot to abolish the position of deputy leader in order to punish the current holder of the position, Tom Watson, for daring to speak out about issues such as anti-Semitism and Brexit is yet more proof that Corbyn and his cronies are more interested in leftist sectarianism than they are in providing credible opposition to the Conservative Party.

Those Labour members who continue to delude themselves that their leader might be a viable champion for their pro-EU beliefs should seek out online an interview conducted by ITV journalist Joe Pike last week, during which Corbyn refused eight times to answer the simple question of whether he was pro-Leave or pro-Remain.

Swinson’s position on Brexit is blunt (necessarily so) and, I think, stands a good chance of capturing the mood of a great many voters. Davidson has shown that, when it comes to binary matters, it is best to pick a side and then stick to it.

The chances of the Lib Dems ever being in a position to enact this new flagship policy are, it has to be said, slender. Recent polling might have the party neck and neck with Labour but Boris Johnson’s Tories continue to be the clear front-runners with voters.

But, given the Lib Dems were all but destroyed by a voter backlash against their five years in coalition government with David Cameron’s Tories, being able to revoke Article 50 is not the only prize for Swinson. The revitalisation of her party would be quite the achievement.

Politicians from left to right may insist that what voters want is for Brexit to be over and done and for MPs to return to dealing with the domestic agenda. I wonder if there’s a degree of projection in such remarks.

So far as I can see, Brexit shows no sign of becoming less important to the electorate. And while this is so, Swinson is quite right to take a hard Remain position.

If ever there was a time to pick a side, it is now.