Whilst it will doubtless delight hardcore Remainers, it’s difficult to see how Labour is going to sell its decision to vote against the EU Withdrawal Bill to a public which still expects its politicians to deliver the result of last year’s referendum.
Ministers have bent over backwards to limit the scope of what was once dubbed the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ by transferring the whole body of existing EU law onto the British statute book, without any sunset clause.
There may be other causes of concern, such as the so-called ‘Henry VIII clauses’ which grant the executive discretionary powers to tweak legislation as it’s carried over. But those are fit subjects for amendments, rather than a case for opposition.
Repealing the European Communities Act, and ending the direct application of EU law in Britain, is an essential prerequisite of Brexit and the Withdrawal Bill does little else. Tom Harris, a former Labour MP and head of the Scottish Leave campaign, argues that to oppose it at second reading sends a clear signal, deliberately or not, that you’re trying to thwart Brexit.
Labour is being pulled in several directions on Brexit. A great majority of the MPs and many of its supporters – especially the new support it won in the general election – don’t want to leave the EU and would be happy to adopt a more obstructionist position. Following this Withdrawal Bill u-turn Lord Adonis, who has called for the sacking of Andrew Neil from the BBC for his Brexit sympathies, predicts that Labour will have endorsed a second referendum in six months’ time.
Jeremy Corbyn himself almost certainly does, and behind him are both Labour’s small band of Leave-supporting MPs from the referendum and others, such as Caroline Flint, who insist on upholding the referendum result and/or have a Leave-leaning seat. Up to 20 of these are planning to rebel against the Labour whip and support the bill, according to the Sun.
Beyond issues of principle, there’s also the obvious temptation to follow in John Smith’s footsteps. The then-Leader of the Opposition supported the Maastricht Treaty, but opposed John Major in the Commons to exploit and exacerbate Tory divisions.
That might be clever tactics, but the obvious risk is that it pushes Leave voters, and others who feel strongly about upholding the referendum result, further towards the Conservatives. Nuances about executive overreach will be lost in the loud signal sent by opposing, let alone actually defeating, a piece of legislation so central to implementing Brexit.
Labour strategists must calculate that by 2022, when the Fixed-term Parliaments Act prescribes another election, this will all be in the past and the electorate will have forgotten. The Tory campaign machine, once rebuilt, must not let that happen.