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This afternoon, things did not look prosperous for Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps they will be better this evening, and he will defeat the Government.

But as Boris Johnson opened the debate, and took a large number of interventions, one could see how tempted quite a few Labour backbenchers are to support the Withdrawal Bill, and that the Prime Minister is doing all he can to make it as easy as possible for them to do so.

Assurances poured from him about workers’ rights, environmental protection, consumer protection, the position of Northern Ireland.

He does this kind of emollient statesmanship very well. It suits him to be robust yet yielding, to sugar every pill, to be the sweetly conciliatory yet also firm and principled leader who will get Brexit done.

It is possible, of course, to insist that one does not believe a word Johnson says. That is the position of most Labour MPs. They do not trust him.

But do they trust Corbyn? What does he have to offer?

Johnson twitted him on wanting two more referendums – one on Europe and one on Scottish independence.

Iain Duncan Smith and Steve Baker, two leading Tory Brexiteers, twitted him on having once agreed with them that Britain ought, on democratic grounds, to leave the European Union.

And nearer to home, Jim Fitzpatrick (Lab, Poplar and Limehouse) reminded him that he used to be Corbyn’s whip.

Fitzpatrick wanted to be reassured that those Labour MPs who vote with the Government on the Withdrawal Bill will not have the whip removed, “any more than he had it removed when he exercised his conscience”.

Corbyn replied, “I believe in the power of persuasion”, but did not sound very persuasive. He pleaded with MPs like Fitzpatrick to “come with us”.

When Lisa Nandy (Lab, Wigan) indicated that she was going to support the Withdrawal Bill, which in Wigan is needed in order to “keep people’s trust in our democracy”, Corbyn replied, in a conciliatory tone, that “my recommendation would be to vote against the Bill”, but “I do respect the way she represents her community”.

Gloria De Piero (Lab, Ashfield) said she will vote for the Bill in order to improve it, and asked Corbyn, “does he understand my motivation?”

Corbyn replied that he commends her – “she’s a great MP” – and Labour is “desperate to represent hard-up communities”.

Johnson was smiling during these exchanges. He may even had felt that in the Leader of the Opposition, he had an undeclared ally.

Might it not be convenient for Corbyn if the Bill does pass? It is a horribly divisive issue within the Labour Party, and it would be agonising for him, as a lifelong Eurosceptic, to find himself fighting an election as the leader who wants to stop Brexit.

24 comments for: Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Does Corbyn really want to stop this Bill?

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