The Second Referendum, or, Obliquity

The following has occurred:

  • The election result has opened up a window of opportunity for rethinking Brexit. Certainly that’s what European leaders, various journalists and pro-EU British politicians are all saying, and a window in British politics = something several different constituencies are all saying is possible.
  • Lib Dem stalwarts are stewing about remainers voting Labour because, as they accurately point out, the Labour manifesto commits to ending freedom of movement, and post-election statements from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell appear to rule out staying in the single market. But this does not matter, because:
  • The Parliamentary Labour Party doesn’t actually give any more of a shit about the fine detail of what Corbyn personally wants than they did two months ago, and I mean that in the best possible way. They have the quite genuine warm-and-fuzzies about what he’s done for them, but they have also learned an important lesson from his own rise that I outlined some time ago: nothing that terrible actually happens when you break the rules. Ten years ago, Labour MPs being off-message would have been unthinkable, but it isn’t now, because nothing’s that unthinkable any more. Howlers sink without trace, ferocious arguments fizzle out in the public eye because journalists have too much to do as it is, the ground is shifting too fast under everybody’s feet. For heaven’s sake, the Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot actually resigned from the front line of politics on the final day of campaigning, and it didn’t dominate the news cycles for 24 hours, because there’s always too much else going on.
  • Thus, the Parliamentary Labour Party has the potential to split (fairly harmlessly to itself, potentially) on a Brexit vote, or, even more so, on a growing Brexit discussion. And Corbyn could probably survive it and continue to tubthump on his chosen issues, for all that he might grouch in private. It’s not his authority in question any more.
  • This is why some people like Anna Soubry have been confidently saying that there is no majority in the House of Commons for leaving the Single Market, when in terms of literal allegiance to manifestos and leadership positions this is clearly not the case. She has a grasp of the new reality. Reality is not what is was. Ten years ago, the Lib Dems’ flat vote share might have been taken as disagreement with their flagship policy position. Today, frustratingly, the position has in fact advanced while the vote share has not.
  • Incidentally, Corbyn did not expand the window of possibility further today, in the opening of Parliament. He took a few potshots at May and referred to the possible short-lived nature of this Parliament, he told a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party that they should consider themselves a government in waiting, but he did not fundamentally challenge the legitimacy of the Prime Minister’s position like he did on the heady night of the election. Missed opportunity. And of course it was left to Tim Farron to say the word “Brexit” for the first time in this Parliament. This is partly because Corbyn is a Eurosceptic, but it’s also because this reality, the reality of parliamentary fun and games, is now working for him, and it’s a position he has not been in before. He should be wary of that, because all his success has come from building his own reality and eschewing the one the political establishment tried to enforce around him.

Reality is a lot more mutable than anyone thinks. It would be a shame for Corbyn if, having found this out for himself, he stepped back into the reality that the system creates for him. But I’m not so bothered about that, because he doesn’t care, entirely, about the things I care about, so what I’m mostly bothered about is the Lib Dems not losing sight of the fact that reality is mutable, and there is a window, and iterative action will keep it open. No-one can plan a way back from Brexit, it doesn’t admit of planning, but one can surf the wave of whatever-it-is that has thrown all these coins up in the air, and keep people talking about possibilities.

With all that in mind, the Lib Dems’ Second Referendum, and what it represents, does not look like a bad call. On the night of the election I was with Labour friends who couldn’t see the immediate relevance of it, and the constructed reality of Westminster may continue to bear that view out for a little while yet. But it’s the Liberal Democrats’ collective tragic job in politics to see the bigger patterns no-one else can see and make the big calls that remain unpopular for years, and Farron should not lose his nerve around this now and fall back too much on the comedy.

We may not have got where we were intending to go, but, due to the increasingly febrile and oblique nature of political change these days, we might just have got to where we needed to be.

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