Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in Coventry this Monday, confirming Labour’s support of a customs union with the EU, has been billed a game-changer, and it would have been if the content of the speech hadn’t been slowly dripped out to the press in recent days. Keir Starmer, the Labour lawyer shadowing David Davis’ unenviable job, had virtually confirmed it (with a knowing smile) on last week’s Andrew Marr Show. Even so, as Corbyn himself insisted throughout his speech, this latest ‘development’ was only a reaffirmation of the Labour Party’s crystal-clear, unambiguous view on Brexit that had been unanimously established after the publication of Labour’s 2017 election manifesto. Or so Corbyn said, anyway. The fact that this announcement was treated with so much discussion did, however, indicate the deafening silence on Brexit that Labour has produced in recent months. For once, the public has been given a concrete fact that isn’t hidden behind several layers of jargon.
Membership of a customs union will greatly simplify two major problems facing the government. Firstly, the possibility of a hard border in Northern Ireland will be virtually eliminated, as a common trading area will satisfy the Irish demand for ‘frictionless trade’ (to which May has not so successfully aspired). Secondly, the economic benefits of a customs union will placate big business by eliminating the uncertainty of a tariff-riddled hard Brexit. However, the customs union is not a silver bullet - if Corbyn were in a hypothetical No.10, he would face opposition from both Brexiteers within his own party and in the DUP-led Northern Irish government, and from Remain-supporting Labour MPs who see this move as a precursor to support for single market membership in a few months’ time. Of course, there is no guarantee Corbyn would receive enough support from the Labour electorate for the plan, - he depends upon many voters who would class themselves as Hard Brexiters.
All of these problems notwithstanding, the decision on membership of a customs union (whether agreed 9 months or 9 days ago) has given Labour a spring in its step. On Wednesday, the unusual sight of a socialist proudly referencing support from the CBI (hardly a bastion of Marxism) at PMQs showed just how excited the Labour frontbench is about their new conviction.
Corbyn also had the never-before-possible privilege of taunting May about her lack of a plan - beyond the dubious “ambitious managed divergence“ without having his own argument thrown back at him. This renewed clarity is, regardless of your position, healthy for the debate; Labour is now able to effectively oppose the government’s Brexit position (or lack of) with the same vigour as they do on social policy.
The sceptical have pointed out that this is just political manoeuvring based on basic parliamentary arithmetic. A parliamentary vote on customs union membership is fast approaching, no matter how much May seeks to delay it. If Corbyn succeeds in whipping his own MPs into line and the crucial Tory rebels follow suit, May’s feeble, DUP-sponsored majority will be undermined. Many of the vultures circling around the Westminster bubble are arguing that such a blow to the government’s position should lead to May’s resignation. All of this is reliant on a number of ifs and buts: Corbyn would have to assert his authority over his own Eurosceptic MPs and the Tory rebels cannot be depended upon if a government defeat would mean opening the Pandora’s Box of a leadership election, or indeed the dreaded prospect of another general election. Additionally, there is no certainty that the EU will even accept Corbyn’s proposal of a bespoke customs arrangement. Regardless Labour has embraced pragmatism and, if May continues in her present ideological lockstep with her hard-line backbenchers, the crunch point that has seemed to slip further away in recent months may be a lot closer than May believes.