Labour’s position on the EU wasn’t immensely clear during the referendum. Now that the country has voted to Leave, unfortunately there are some signs that its position on Brexit remains rather muddy.
Yesterday’s statement by David Davis gave an opportunity to examine precisely how the Opposition intends to play the issue. Emily Thornberry, his shadow, chose to focus on demanding that the Commons vote before the triggering of Article 50 – something the Brexit Secretary recognised as an attempt to block the process of leaving the EU. Or as he put it: “What she is trying to wrap up in a pseudo-democratic masquerade is the most anti-democratic proposal I have heard for some time. She wants to deny the will of the British people.”
It was no great surprise to hear Labour’s front bench advocating the denial of that democratic will – after all, they spent years opposing the very idea of giving the people a democratic say on our EU membership at all.
More interesting were the signs that the position doesn’t command the full support of Labour MPs. While some of the Opposition backbenches loyally rallied behind Thornberry to demand their chance to obstruct the triggering of Article 50, several asked questions of Davis which implicitly or explicitly acknowledged that the Leave vote must now be implemented.
Here are a few examples:
“Jean-Claude Juncker said this weekend that he did not like the idea of our negotiating trade arrangements, but would it not leave us in limbo if we could not do so? It is essential that we have the ability to get on with building these new relationships now.”
“Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be a good idea to try to find some way of maintaining a form of co-operation on foreign policy after we leave the European Union, because even after exit we will still very much be part of Europe…”
“I campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU, but I accept the outcome of the referendum and the views of the majority of my constituents.”
“A significant reason why my constituency voted to leave was immigration and free movement of labour, so may I ask the Secretary of State whether, at the end of this process, under no circumstances will free movement of labour be allowed?”
“I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the British people made a decision on 23 June and we should respect it. I will certainly not be arguing for another referendum. We now need to make the best of the negotiations.”
“The people of Stoke-on-Trent voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. I will therefore work tirelessly and do everything I can to make sure that we make the best efforts for and get the best deal from that exit.”
It can’t be easy for those who supported Remain to acknowledge their defeat in this way, but it is the right thing to do. The vast majority of Remain voters are also adjusting to reality and accepting the result, rather than marching to demand that it be overturned. That Thornberry is not, and has made it Labour’s official policy, is a sign of her poor judgement.
She and Corbyn may feel that their seats would be secure even if they obstruct the will of the people, but evidently various of her colleagues can see the writing on the wall for the Labour Party if it does so. After all, quite a lot of their constituencies voted heavily to Leave, and their traditional vote is already quite hacked off.
Given that the majority of Labour MPs are already in open revolt over numerous other topics, it’s unlikely that they will keep this disagreement to themselves. It seems that yet another split is emerging on the Opposition benches.