In his book ‘The Special One’, Diego Torres lays out Jose Mourinho’s brilliantly cynical, brutal footballing philosophy: “Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake. Whoever has the ball has fear. Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.”
Yesterday, in an attempt to break the Brexit impasse, the prime minister announced that she was seeking talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. For Corbyn, the Brexit ball is – at long last – in his court. It’s a moment of possibility and danger.
The good news is that Labour finds itself in a position to shape Brexit properly: to end the possibility of no deal, to seek protections for workers and the environment, to achieve some form of permanent customs union that would limit economic harm. For Corbyn himself, it’s a chance to do that rarest of things for an opposition leader: look prime ministerial.
One of Labour’s criticisms of Theresa May’s deal is the vagueness of the political declaration, which currently weighs in at a paltry 26 pages. With the PM set to stand down once withdrawal from the EU is finalised, Labour fears that signing off that document in its current form could give Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson carte blanche to shape Britain’s future relationship with the EU however they saw fit. These talks could provide an opportunity for Labour to insist that Parliament is given a say in the next stage of discussions – and that any changes are enshrined in law.
But the entire situation is fraught with danger for Labour. One of the reasons for Corbyn’s popularity with the Labour membership is the perception that he listens to them and acts upon their wishes. Labour are all too aware of how toxic an issue Brexit is with those members, with polling suggesting nearly three quarters want a second referendum. Any sign that Corbyn was helping to push Brexit through would go down very badly. The careful position Labour has taken over the past three years on Brexit – with the aim of appeasing both remain and leave voters – has been a masterclass in renouncing possession that would make Mourinho swell with pride.
For two years, the prime minister has ignored the result of the 2017 election. Yesterday, it seemed that reality finally caught up. Has she finally accepted the irreconcilable problems her much vaunted redlines have created at the northern Irish border? Has she turned away from the internal machinations of the Tory party and towards parliament and the country?
Possibly. It still seems the most likely scenario is that Labour are simply being used as an unwitting tool in her latest attempt to whip unruly MPs into shape. By dangling the Damoclean sword of a Corbyn-enabled soft Brexit, the prime minister may feel she can focus the minds of Brexit supporters who have so far proved implacably opposed to her deal. Even if he was simply trying to reassure Tory hardliners, Michael Gove may have given the game away last night when he said, “what we’re really doing is making sure that concentrated minds in parliament have a chance to focus on the options in front of us.” We have already had three votes on the prime minister’s deal. A nation will not rejoice to hear that, despite the excitement of the last 24 hours, we are still more likely than not to get a fourth.