Brexit: Why the Tories will fear Corbyn less if the deal unravels

The UK-EU Brexit deal announced earlier this week appears to have reassured and annoyed people in equal measure. Certainly it raises questions over the wording of the content, with some pledges apparently contradicting others.

For instance, it is difficult to see how an undertaking to maintain Northern Ireland’s alignment with the EU internal market is consistent with it leaving the internal market along with the rest of the UK after Brexit. In other words, parts of the agreement, when looked at closely, give the impression of being no more than sticking plasters. If so, trouble lies ahead as it will prove impossible not to break one promise while honouring another.

EU negotiators have been keen to protect Theresa May in the run-up to, and announcement of, the Brexit deal for fear of her government collapsing and Jeremy Corbyn taking power. The DUP has (for now) accepted the terms of the deal, but one wonders what Mrs May had to say to Arlene Foster to reassure her that all would be fine in the end. Elements of the commentariat now argue that the terms of the agreement are so ill-defined that the UK will be able to interpret them as it wishes in the long term, the sort of reassurance that might have persuaded Mrs Foster to sign up to them. Others believe that this looseness only plays into the hands of the EU, which will be able to dictate terms during the transitional period when the European Court of Justice continues to hold sway, however narrowly.

None of this sets the scene for a happy Brexit outcome.

Michael Gove’s intervention, reassuring the public that they will be in control of what eventually happens via the ballot box, is significant because it hints at what may well happen next.

If the May Brexit deal begins to unravel – and I would not bet against this – Cabinet frustration is likely to boil over to the extent that it overcomes the fear of Corbyn at the ballot box. If that happens, leadership challenges will arise from both sides of the Brexit divide. Remainers, led by Amber Rudd or perhaps Jeremy Hunt, will pledge that a vote for them will mean staying in the Customs Union and Single Market, as well as keeping the jurisdiction of the ECJ, while a Johnson/Gove/Patel ticket is likely to pledge a hard Brexit – both sides distinguishing themselves from Labour by offering clarity and a real choice to an exasperated electorate.

Another change of Conservative leader over Brexit will have to mean a general election

It is hard to see how, with another change of leadership, the Conservatives can press ahead with a new policy on Brexit without the mandate of a general election. In the event that an election is called, Labour will capitalise on the youth vote, better discipline and the firm grasp of social media that the Tories lack when it comes to issues such as tax, welfare and the NHS, but will suffer if it does not remove its fudge on Brexit, especially if the Conservatives vote in a leader who comes down clearly on one side or the other.

For the Conservatives, a lurch to one side of the Brexit debate or the other risks alienating a significant proportion of their traditional support, splitting the vote for a right of centre government and thereby playing into Labour’s hands.

Labour has everything to gain. Firstly, because after close to eight years of the Tories under two prime ministers – and with no untarnished candidate on the horizon to take over as leader – public patience with the incumbent administration has worn very thin indeed. Secondly, the recent incompetence and negotiating weakness of the May team has also undermined the electorate’s confidence.

However, Labour is far from unified, and a real fear of Momentum’s influence and how the political landscape might change if Corbyn and McDonnell achieve power may well stay the hand of voters in the polling booth. Many sympathise with the left’s NHS, welfare and education spending plans, but the astronomical bill for them could prove a step too far, and the backtracking on student fees in July, with a pledge turning into an ‘ambition’, will have sown doubt in some people’s minds.

So, just as the negotiating stand-off between the UK and EU has largely been about who will blink first (the UK), so the domestic political scene faces the same challenge. The Cabinet has been prepared to back May while she stays roughly on track because of the threat of a Corbyn takeover. However, if her position becomes untenable, as looks increasingly likely, then a leadership challenge promises to be instantaneous, as both sides in the Brexit debate fear being left behind. Under these circumstances, fighting Labour at the polls becomes all but inevitable and so, ironically, the Corbyn threat disappears as a factor in tactical considerations.

If this is where we end up, then the Conservatives are up against some very hard choices. Any leadership candidate faces the currently insuperable challenge of uniting the party and instilling rigid discipline in the face of a hard left takeover by Labour, while promoting clear leadership under the banner of either the hardest or softest of Brexits.