LONDON — Those hoping the official opposition will step up their game on Brexit were cheered on Monday by the news that the party is proposing a motion calling on the government to publish their plan for leaving the EU before triggering Article 50.
The story gained traction after Europhile Conservative MP Anna Soubry said that she and up to 40 of her colleagues could back the motion in the House.
“There’s nothing in it that I disagree with,” she told the World at One. “The contents of that motion are eminently supportable.”
If Soubry and her colleagues follow through on their threats, then the government could suffer an embarrassing defeat on the biggest issue currently facing the country.
So is this finally a sign of Labour showing some effective opposition to the government’s Brexit plans? Not quite.
To start with there is a reasonable chance that the government will avoid defeat. When a similar motion was called by Labour earlier this year, ministers made a tactical retreat and filed an amendment giving in to the opposition’s central demand. It was seen at the time as a symbolic victory for Labour. But unfortunately symbolic victories are the most Labour are now likely to achieve.
Unfortunately, symbolic victories are the most Labour are now likely to achieve.
On almost every substantive issue relating to Britain’s exit from the EU, Labour’s leadership have already essentially surrendered. From the timing of triggering Article 50 to whether or not the UK should remain in the single market, the opposition has given the government a free pass.
In every public statement on Brexit by the Labour leadership, they insist that they “respect the decision of the British people to leave the European Union” and will not seek to prevent or delay it.
In many respects this is understandable. If Labour had taken a position of outright opposition to triggering Article 50, then it would have been the biggest act of self-harm since the Charge of the Light Brigade. But in practice, by refusing to attach any conditions to their support for Britain’s exit from the EU, Labour has effectively raised the flag of surrender before even a single bullet has been fired. The government can do whatever it wants under the protective banner of Brexit.
There are two explanations for Labour’s capitulation. The first is that it is a matter of political expediency. A majority of the public want the referendum result to be respected and Labour do not want to be on the wrong side of public opinion. (However, being on the wrong side of public opinion is not something that appears to have concerned Jeremy Corbyn greatly in the past. It is unclear why it should suddenly concern him now.)
The more convincing explanation is that this is not a capitulation at all. The Labour leader did not move over to the government’s position — he was already there to begin with.
When the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, described Brexit as a “great opportunity” that Labour should be more “positive” about, he did not say it as a matter of political expediency. He said it because it is what he believes. Both McDonnell and Corbyn are lifelong Eurosceptics who were opposed to Britain’s EU membership right up until the point that they took control of the Labour party. For both men, the only capitulation to political expediency came during the EU referendum campaign when they half-heartedly campaigned for the Remain camp. Now that campaign is over and the public have voted in line with their own long-held beliefs, they are simply returning to the fold.
Looked at in this light, Labour’s repeated reluctance to show any substantive opposition to Brexit suddenly becomes less inexplicable. Comments, such as those by the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott yesterday, when she refused to say whether MPs should be allowed to vote on Article 50, no longer seem remarkable. They are merely what we should expect.
This is not a position shared by all within the party. The Shadow Brexit team, led by Keir Starmer, are trying their best to secure a better, closer relationship with Europe, than the one we are currently heading for. But at every turn their work is being undermined by a leadership which fundamentally shares the same aims as the government. As a result, the substantive work of opposing the government is being left to third parties, such as those leading the charge in the Supreme Court
For Labour supporters, the vast majority of whom voted in favour of remaining in the EU, this may seem like a betrayal. But for the Labour leadership, they are merely staying loyal to their own long-held beliefs. For Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit has always meant Brexit, and he is determined to make a success of it.
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