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Why has Jeremy Corbyn committed Labour to voting for Article 50?

The party's Brexit woes have been thrown into sharper contrast by the decision. 

At the start of the week, Labour’s strategy team – Jeremy Corbyn, his aides, plus Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, plus their aides – attended a polling presentation by BMG Research, the party’s new pollster.

It made for grim viewing according to one attendee. Among the horror stories: for two thirds of voters, their vote in the referendum is now more important than their chosen political party. For Labour the effect is particularly deadly. Their voters largely backed Remain, but that segment is concentrated in a handful of safe seats. Overall, many Labour seats trend Leave. Separately, the leadership is braced to lose both the Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent by-elections.

Labour is effectively led by a triumvirate – Corbyn, plus Abbott and McDonnell, the two MPs who are most influential upon his thinking – though Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary is growing in importance. Unlike Abbott and McDonnell, she is not a longstanding ally but was the only MP to make the leap from opposing Corbyn in the 2015 leadership race to supporting him in the 2016 one. As Corbyn’s constituency neighbour since 2005, she and him get on well and hers is one of the voices that is listened to closely.

The presentation sold Corbyn on the idea that Labour had to show that it respects the result of the referendum if it is to pass through this period of uncertainty. Abbott and Thornberry – whose own seats, like Corbyn’s, voted to Remain by a large margin – are less sold on the new approach. McDonnell, however, was deeply affected by presentation, which helped to stiffen the Labour leader’s resolve.

That was behind the decision to impose a three-line-whip as far as voting for Article 50: to show that Labour has accepted the result and help drain the poison from the issue. That Corbyn is a longstanding Eurosceptic, who has voted against every European treaty that came before the House during his parliamentary career, means that it is less of a wrench for him than for his other colleagues. 

While there are private disagreements about the new line among the top four, that quartet were largely united in shadow cabinet. It was Clive Lewis who spoke out. Although he is not as influential in the inner circle as is widely supposed, he is regarded as the best hope for the Corbynite wing to retain control of the party after the next election. So it is significant that he went so far as to hint he might resign, but “stopped short”, in the words of one present.  He will now vote with his leader to trigger Article 50. 

What happens now? Although the party’s three-line-whip would usually result in a sacking if the whip is broken, it is likely to be widely breached without serious consequences. That Daniel Zeichner, Tulip Siddiq and Catherine West have all committed to vote against triggering Article 50 (and in the case of Zeichner and West in particular they would seriously imperil their seats if they didn’t) but are judged to have been helpful presences on the frontbench mean that the leadership might be inclined to “look the other way”, or at the least, restore them to the frontbench in short order. Siddiq and Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, both broke a three-line whip on HS2, which the leadership supports but their constituents oppose, with Corbyn intervening to preserve both of them. 

Note: At time of publication, I misread a message about the composition of the strategy meeting, and added Emily Thornberry to the attendance list. The fault was mine, apologies. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Vince Cable will need something snappier than a graduate tax to escape tuition fees

Perhaps he's placing his hopes in the “Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front.” 

“We took power, and we got crushed,” Tim Farron said in what would turn out to be his final Autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader, before hastening on to talk about Brexit and the need for a strong opposition.

A year and a snap election later, Vince Cable, the Lib Dem warhorse-turned-leader and the former Coalition business secretary, had plenty of cracks about Brexit.

He called for a second referendum – or what he dubbed a “first referendum on the facts” – and joked that he was “half prepared for a spell in a cell with Supreme Court judges, Gina Miller, Ken Clarke, and the governors of the BBC” for suggesting it".

Lib Dems, he suggested, were the “political adults” in the room, while Labour sat on the fence. Unlike Farron, however, he did not rule out the idea of working with Jeremy Corbyn, and urged "grown ups" in other parties to put aside their differences. “Jeremy – join us in the Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front,” he said. The Lib Dems had been right on Iraq, and would be proved right on Brexit, he added. 

But unlike Farron, Cable revisited his party’s time in power.

“In government, we did a lot of good and we stopped a lot of bad,” he told conference. “Don’t let the Tories tell you that they lifted millions of low-earners out of income tax. We did… But we have paid a very high political price.”

Cable paid the price himself, when he lost his Twickenham seat in 2015, and saw his former Coalition colleague Nick Clegg turfed out of student-heavy Sheffield Hallam. However much the Lib Dems might wish it away, the tuition fees debate is here to stay, aided by some canny Labour manoeuvring, and no amount of opposition to Brexit will hide it.

“There is an elephant in the room,” the newly re-established MP for Twickenham said in his speech. “Debt – specifically student debt.” He defended the policy (he chose to vote for it in 2010, rather than abstain) for making sure universities were properly funded, but added: “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one.” He is reviewing options for the future, including a graduate tax. But students are unlikely to be cheering for a graduate tax when Labour is pledging to scrap tuition fees altogether.

There lies Cable’s challenge. Farron may have stepped down a week after the election declaring himself “torn” between religion and party, but if he had stayed, he would have had to face the fact that voters were happier to nibble Labour’s Brexit fudge (with lashings of free tuition fees), than choose a party on pure Remain principles alone.

“We are not a single-issue party…we’re not Ukip in reverse,” Cable said. “I see our future as a party of government.” In which case, the onus is on him to come up with something more inspiring than a graduate tax.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.