AS the festive season draws to a close there’s been much talk in Labour circles of abstention. No – not abstention from alcohol, but a possible Labour abstention the meaningful vote on Theresa May's Brexit deal, the debate on which begins next week (unless Theresa May bottles it again as she did in December).

There is a body of opinion in the Labour party, and not a million miles from the leader's office, that the best option would be for Labour to sit on its hands. Not vote. Let the Tories squirm. Not our problem, mate.

It's not Jeremy's fault that the PM came back from Brussels with a broken-backed deal that is, in Corbyn's words, “the worst of all worlds”. If he'd been allowed to do the dealing: why, he’d surely have come back with a joyous, jobs first Brexit. The Corbynator would've tough-talked Brussels into agreeing a bespoke customs union, plus privileged access to the European Single Market without any obligation to accept freedom of movement or state aid rules. Job done. If only the Tories would call that election so Jeremy could make it happen!

Except of course there'll be no General Election, and even if there was, Jeremy Corbyn has about as much chance of finding a better deal in Brussels as the police have in finding drones over Gatwick, or Chris Grayling a channel ferry operator that actually has ferries. Of course, no-one is allowed to say this in the presence of the Dear Leader. So Labour ministers and MPs bite their ragged lips and perpetuate the most cynical political falsehood since Donald Trump promised to make Mexico pay for the border wall.

And given their supine behaviour thus far, it is probable that many Labour MPs would allow themselves to be whipped into abstaining on the only meaningful vote on Brexit. After all, they abstained last year on the motion to allow parliament to consider the EEA “Norway” option, even though that's the one alternative to May's deal that Brussels might accept. Their latest abstention may not be on the first outing of the “meaningful”vote, scheduled for next week. May is expected to lose that , and to bring her final, final, amended deal back to the Commons, probably in February, hoping that MPs will fall into line as the Article 50 clock runs out. That's when Labour will decide the fate of the nation.

And let's be absolutely clear: abstaining on Brexit, the most important issue facing the UK since the Second World War, would not just be an abdication of opposition – it would be a betrayal, a craven capitulation, for which Labour would never be forgiven. Abstention would mean handing the future of the UK to the hardline Brexiteers who have been holding May and country to ransom for the last two years, despite representing a small minority in parliament. At the very least, Corbyn would be conniving in saving Theresa May's discredited Withdrawal Deal, thus condemning the UK to a “botched” Brexit, which he described in November as “an act of national self-harm”.

The press would have a field day with headlines about “Labour's Meaning-less Vote” over pictures of a bewildered-looking Corbyn in Parliament as Theresa May berates him for having no policy on Brexit after two-and-a-half years of attacking the Government's. “What is Labour for?”, commentators would ask, questioning Corbyn's reason, leadership and his fitness to govern. But that would be nothing compared to the comments in Labour itself.

Abstention would risk splitting the party. The vast majority of Labour members oppose Brexit and want a referendum. This is an issue, uniquely, which unites the young left activists of Momentum with the old right Blairites of what used to be called New Labour. There would be mass resignations, with young members burning their party cards. Rebel Labour MPs, like Chuka Umunna, would likely join with SNP, Liberal Democrats and Tory remainers, creating a new political coalition. The party could be split for years, decades even – like Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour after 1931.

So, why is Corbyn even contemplating this ruinous route? The answer is partly his own ingrained euroscepticism. He says he voted Remain in 2016, but ever since the 1970s he has opposed the free market economics that underpin the 1957 Treaty of Rome that founded the EEC. Corbyn thinks the rules of the single market could make British socialism impossible. “I don't want to be told by someone else,” he's said, “that we can't use state aid to develop industry in this country.” This is disputed by Labour supporters of the EU, but it is not in doubt that Brussels generally regards Government subsidies as anti-competitive.

The other reason is electoral. Most of Labour’s General Election target seats are pro-leave constituencies. So, while the opinion polls may indicate that a majority of voters would now vote Remain, Labour could still lose the next General Election if it's seen to block Brexit. Again, this electoral calculation is disputed. But clearly Corbyn is trying to keep his pro-European party on side while not alienating anti-European voters. Riding two horses is notoriously difficult owing to the tendency to fall off both of them.

But perhaps the main reason Corbyn might be tempted by abstention is the old political adage, attributed to Napoleon: “Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake.” Brexit will be a disaster for the Tories from day one, and then get steadily worse. So, why get in her way? Let Theresa May or her successor, implement her useless Withdrawal Deal, leave the EU as planned, and then allow Labour to benefit from the public backlash. Corbyn will have his general election without ever having to have a coherent policy on Brexit, which by then will anyway be a done deal.

This is a superficially attractive strategy but ultimately ruinous for Labour. First of all, this is not a battle, but a war. You DO interrupt your enemy if he (or she) is about to run all over you. By abstaining, and effectively allowing May’s deal to go ahead, Labour will be fatally implicated in the subsequent disaster. The public won't forgive Corbyn for failing to seize the only opportunity to prevent Brexit. It's unlikely he would survive the backlash that will afflict our entire political class .

Remain supporters in Labour hope that reason will prevail and that Corbyn will not succumb to abstentionism. That he will “pivot” to a People's Vote after May loses the meaningful vote next week. But I don't think this is going to happen by itself – he is too wedded to keeping his head down. Anyway, Corbyn's instincts are clear from his candid remarks over Christmas that, even after a General Election, he would still carry Brexit through.

However, the Labour leader is supposed to believe in party democracy – he's been arguing for it from the backbenches for most of his career. It is now time for Labour's unsilent majority to take control. Either through a special conference, demonstrations or petitions, they must show Corbyn that they will not accept Labour voting for Brexit by pretending to vote for nothing at all. The meaningful vote must mean something.