We have been here before. Labour tables an opposition day motion critical of the Government’s handling of Brexit, urging it to reveal more about its aims for the negotiation. The Conservative Whips worry that some Tory backbenchers will support the motion, and that the Government may lose the vote. Ministers then produce a tactical riposte. Instead of opposing the motion, they table an amendment to it conceding some ground to their critics, thereby heading off trouble They then counter-attack the Opposition, arguing that the latter are seeking to force Theresa May to reveal her negotiating hand, and that this manouevre is against the national interest. Labour retreats, and accepts the amendment. There is no vote.
All this happened almost exactly a month ago. And once again, the two parties are repeating the dance – but with variations. Another opposition day debate on Brexit takes place today. Labour sought to cover its back by inserting in its motion a reference to not undermining the Government’s negotiating position. Anna Soubry said on Monday that as many as 40 Conservative MPs could vote with the Opposition – thus ensuring a defeat for the Government. This was unlikely. I will not hear a word against dear old Soubry – for whom I retain immortal longings – but she is not a reliable barometer of backbench opinion, even among her fellow Remainers. Were this otherwise, her colleagues would recently have elected her to the Brexit Select Committee, which they did not do.
None the less, the defection into the opposition lobby of even a handful of Tory MPs could result in a Government defeat. So Ministers have duly played their counter-stroke. Once again, they are not opposing Labour’s motion. And once again, they have tabled an amendment – this time calling on the Government “to invoke Article 50 by 31 March 2017”. The Opposition thus faced an uncomfortable choice. Would it oppose the amendment? Or would it accept it – thereby seeking to ensure, once again, that there is no vote. It looks as though the party will plump for the latter – which will not suit the Liberal Democrats and the SNP at all (or David Lammy and Catherine West).
All of which leaves a question hanging in the air. Who has had the better of this tactical skirmish? Since Labour is poised to accept the amendment, has it been bluffed by Ministers into accepting Article 50 – and thus Brexit too? Or has the Opposition turned the tables on the Government, since its motion “calls on the Prime Minister to ensure that this House is able properly to scrutinise that plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked”? What form will that scrutiny take? How much detail will Ministers be forced to give? Is a coalition of Labour, other opposition parties and some Conservative Remainers slowly succeeding in forcing the Prime Minister to reveal more of her negotiating hand? Either way, and all the while, the Supreme Court sits on.