Today’s Telegraph splash features a threatening graphic of the forces arrayed against May’s plan for Brexit. The SNP are planning to table 50 amendments to the Article 50 Bill, the Liberal Democrats are implementing a three-line whip to vote against and Labour, the paper says, “called for full access to the Single Market”.
All of these things are true, but I’m not sure they should be seen as particularly intimidating. Each of these opponents would no doubt love to disrupt the Prime Minister’s agenda, but actually preventing Brexit is not at the top of any of their lists of priorities.
Take the SNP, whose gimmicky threat of 50 amendments to Article 50 flags up that this is more about presentation than practical disruption. No doubt they’re very pleased with their 50/50 idea, but most of these amendments won’t see the light of day if the Government sets a short timetable for the Bill. More importantly, Nicola Sturgeon won’t care very much if that happens – her priority is in drumming up yet another sense of grievance, in order to provide another spurious justification to hold a second referendum just a few years after the first that she promised would be a “once in a lifetime” event. Serious opposition takes second place.
The Liberal Democrats certainly are placing their MPs on a three-line whip to oppose Article 50. But it’s worth remembering that you could, at a squeeze, fit all of their MPs in a lift. And why is there a need for a three-line whip if they are so strongly opposed to Brexit? Three of their number have not been willing to confirm that they will vote against the Bill – not least because seats like Southport and North Norfolk voted Leave. Tellingly, yesterday Farron was only able to say that “we will not vote for Article 50” – not voting for it is subtly but crucially different to all voting against it. The Lib Dem leader’s top priority is establishing his party as the Remain equivalent of UKIP, appealing to Remainer grievances in England just as Sturgeon hopes to appeal to nationalist grievances in Scotland. That’s an existential battle for his party, so again serious opposition takes second place.
And then we come to Corbyn’s Labour Party. While the SNP and the Lib Dems at least have an established line on Article 50 or Brexit, the official Opposition still doesn’t know what it thinks. As the Telegraph reports, he wants “Single Market access” – but so does May, via a free trade deal, and anyway that’s a matter for the negotiation not the triggering of Article 50. Corbyn himself famously called for Article 50 to be triggered the day after the referendum, and a tactical blunder before Christmas allowed the Government to trap his MPs into voting for the March timetable. We know that many of his MPs intend to vote for the Bill out of fear for their seats – intensified by the possible loss of Stoke on Trent Central to UKIP – and others believe the referendum result cannot be ignored. We know Seumas Milne played a major part in disrupting the Remain campaign, and that Corbyn spent decades opposing EU membership before a messy compromise ahead of the referendum. Unlike the other opposition parties, Labour doesn’t have another priority coming ahead of seriously opposing Brexit – it doesn’t seem to have any clear and agreed priorities at all.