21 November 2019

On Tuesday, the first televised debates between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn took place. Brexit dominated the first half of the discussion and the two leaders each had important messages to get across on this topic.

For Johnson, the key point was to keep the focus on Brexit as the most important issue of the election campaign, even as the discussion moved onto other topics. He highlighted the uncertainties about Labour’s Brexit position, making much of Corbyn’s refusal to say whether he would campaign for Leave or Remain in another referendum. The Prime Minister also attempted to argue that a minority Labour Government would be reliant on the votes of the SNP to get its business through the Commons, and this could lead to two more referendums, one on Brexit and another on Scottish independence.

For Jeremy Corbyn, the debate was about downplaying Brexit in favour of other issues where Labour is on stronger ground. He framed Labour’s policy in terms of bringing the country together and letting the people decide. This message will no doubt appeal to Remain voters. At the same time, Corbyn stressed that Johnson’s Brexit deal would put the UK on an uncertain path, which he illustrated by claiming that the Conservatives were planning to ‘sell out our NHS to the United States and big pharma.’ In this way, he moved the conversation onto health, which is more comfortable territory for Labour – while also linking the Brexit project to President Trump.

Elsewhere, the next phase of the General Election has begun as the political parties publish their manifestos. The Green Party and the Liberal Democrats have published theirs in the last two days, while Labour published theirs on Thursday. The Conservatives and some of the smaller parties are expected to follow suit in the next few days. As each of the parties examine their rivals’ proposals, it is possible that some of the policy announcements will drive the course of the rest of the campaign.

Over the next week, Open Europe will be examining the manifestos for policies on Brexit and related issues. It is worth noting that the prominence given to other issues in the Labour manifesto reflects Corbyn’s messaging in the television debate. The party offers some more detail about the sort of Brexit deal it would seek to negotiate with the EU, including a ‘permanent and comprehensive’ UK-wide customs union, close alignment to the Single Market and dynamic alignment on workers’ rights, consumer rights and environmental protections. The contours of the deal are largely unchanged from the party’s “five tests” back in February and March, which Open Europe analysed at the time here.

Some of Labour’s asks will be difficult to negotiate – for example, they propose continued “access” to the European Arrest Warrant, something the EU has never granted to any non-member state – not even Norway. There also remains some ambiguity as to whether Labour’s Brexit deal would include freedom movement of people. Elsewhere, there may also be problems with their timetable for negotiating a deal while simultaneously legislating domestically for a “binding” referendum.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have given great prominence to their ‘Stop Brexit’ message. The party is also promoting a range of ideas on constitutional reform and the future governance of the UK – including reforms to areas which have had considerable relevance to the Brexit process in recent months, such as prorogation and votes of confidence. These are areas where the party could remain relevant to the conversation about what the UK would look like after Brexit, if indeed it goes ahead.

News in brief

1. Brexit and the NHS top priorities for UK voters this election
When asked which issues would decide their vote in the upcoming General Election, 56% of respondents identified Brexit as a key issue whilst 60% identified the NHS, according to polling of Great Britain residents conducted by Ipsos MORI. For those who voted Conservative in 2017, 69% said Brexit was a key issue in determining their vote compared with 47% of those who voted for Labour in 2017.

2. Tusk elected leader of the European People’s Party
The centre-right European People’s Party elected outgoing European Council President Donald Tusk as its leader on Wednesday, with 491 votes in favour and 37 against. Tusk, a former Prime Minister of Poland, will replace French politician Joseph Daul, who has led the party since 2013.

3. European Parliament to vote on Commission without UK next week
The President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, said today that the Parliament would vote on incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s team of commissioners on Wednesday, irrespective of whether the UK submits a commission nominee. “If the vote is positive, on December 1st the European Commission will be able to start its own work,” Sassoli added. This follows a dispute between the UK and the EU over the UK’s decision not to submit a candidate for the commission during its election campaign.

Open Europe in the media

Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh was a guest speaker at a Brexit workshop at the Bundesbank’s “Euro20+” event in Frankfurt last week.

Pieter Cleppe spoke at the annual meeting of the Dutch Federation of Technology Branches (FHI) in the Netherlands earlier this week. Cleppe discussed the need to continue UK-EU negotiations after the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified, drawing attention to the continual nature of negotiations between the EU and Switzerland.