If the Government is indeed forced to bring a Bill before the House of Commons to trigger Article 50, the Prime Minister can only be heartened by the state of Labour, both generally and on this particular topic.
Jeremy Corbyn glumly shook his head just now as David Davis reminded the House that the Labour leader called on 24th June for Article 50 to be triggered immediately. Unfortunately for Corbyn, he said it in front of a television camera – and television cameras have a nasty habit of recording things that you say out loud while standing in front of them. By September, he was denying ever having said it in order to refute Owen Smith’s allegations that he was failing to challenge the process of Brexit.
Just in case anyone missed this farce the first time round, Labour have chosen to restage it. Yesterday, Corbyn announced that Labour would vote against Article 50 unless a series of demands were met.
Those demands were quite confused. Apparently he wants Britain to have “access” to the Single Market, which is the Government’s own position. Attempts to extract other guarantees, such as eternal continuation of EU environment and workplace regulations, seem to fall foul of the simple fact that no Government can bind its successors.
But Corbyn’s problem was more serious than simply not having thought through his demands. I wondered as soon as the news broke whether he had checked to confirm that his own MPs would follow his line of threatening to block Article 50. After all, most of them represent Leave-voting constituencies, and are unlikely to want to be seen to be blocking the will of their constituents.
The answer came within hours, as the Opposition’s new policy had started to unravel. Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader, said the opposite: “We’re not going to hold this up. The British people have spoken and Article 50 will be triggered when it comes to Westminster.” The retreat continued when Labour HQ told The Independent: “We won’t be seeking to block Article 50, only amend or influence the Government’s negotiating terms if they do not meet our red lines.” This morning Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, had reduced the position to proposing amendments to the Bill, but definitely voting for it regardless.
There are numerous weaknesses in Labour’s position. Their leader, a lifelong Eurosceptic whose last-minute conversion to Remain was less than convincing, doesn’t seem to have the first idea what to do. Their MPs are mostly minded to disobey him on any given topic just because. Various wings of the Labour Party want very different things – from Continuity Remainers who want Brexit stopped, through Single Market fans to ultra-Corbynites who have always disliked the idea of Brussels having the power to forbid nationalisations. Meanwhile, as they tank in the polls the MPs are looking nervously at the large numbers of core Labour voters who supported Leave – already at risk of losing their seats thanks to Corbyn’s unpopularity, they fear that being seen as obstacles to Brexit could be the final straw.
On top of the incompetence, the divisions and the gulf between Labour MPs and Labour voters, the Opposition also has no nuclear button to press. When the Sunday Mirror headline on Corbyn’s threat to demand an election, it was hard to imagine anyone in Downing Street being in any way worried. If the next election is a choice between May or Corbyn as Prime Minister, their respective versions of Brexit aren’t going to change the decision – even if Labour could find a way to go to the country, they’d simply end up pushing voters to endorse their rival’s approach.