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Labour's next leadership election will be about Europe, but don't bet on Clive Lewis just yet

Voting against Article 50 will keep in good standing with the membership, but further narrow his path to the ballot paper in the parliamentary Labour party. 

Clive Lewis’s off-again, on-again relationship with the Labour grassroots is on-again.  The shadow business secretary has vowed to vote against triggering Article 50 and resign from the shadow cabinet if needed, unless he is persuaded that the final bill avoids a hard Brexit. (He will still vote for triggering Article 50 at the second reading.)

For much of the lifetime of the Corbyn project, Lewis has been the preferred successor of many in the grassroots. He also enjoys the support of most of the small band of Corbynites in the commentariat. But in signalling he would vote to trigger Article 50, he opened up a potentially fatal breach between him and party members.

For the last 20 years, the Labour membership has been overwhelmingly pro-European, but only in the same sense that Britain is overwhelmingly a Christian country. Most might like the idea, some might even attend church at Christmas, but very few were genuinely devout.  That was why Corbyn – a lifelong Eurosceptic who voted against every single European treaty that came before the Commons in his time as an MP – was able to win a landslide victory in 2015 among a pro-European party, despite telling the New Statesman that he had not “closed his mind” to the possibility of voting to leave the European Union.

But the Labour grassroots is undergoing something of a religious revival as far as pro-Europeanism is concerned. I’m reliably informed that more than 7,000 people have quit the Labour Party in the last week over the party’s Article 50 stance. For many inside and outside Labour, supporting a Remain vote has become a proxy not just for how you feel about the EU but a wide swathe of issues: pro- or anti- immigration, for or against social liberalism, and so on.

A lot could happen between now and the next Labour leadership election, but, as things stand, voting against Article 50 looks to me to be a prerequisite for victory. For Lewis, there is the added risk that his marginal seat of Norwich South – which voted to Remain by a heavy margin – would almost certainly be lost if he voted to trigger Article 50. While many of the big beasts in the shadow cabinet – Diane Abbott, Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer, and Jeremy Corbyn himself – have large pro-Remain votes in their constituency, they have much bigger majorities and are therefore at less risk from a revolt of Remainers.

Whereas it would be brave, to put it mildly, for Lewis to vote to trigger Article 50. So the politics of voting against triggering it are fairly open and shut from Lewis’ perspective.

But I wouldn’t make him the frontrunner just yet. As Lyndon Johnson was fond of saying, the most important thing in politics is to be able to count. The numbers that matter as far as Lewis is concerned are 15 per cent – the number of people in the parliamentary Labour party who have to sign a candidate’s nomination papers – or, if the attempt to reduce the threshold succeeds, five per cent. Or, in whole numbers: 35 or 12 MPs respectively.  Although there are some Corbynsceptic MPs who are open to the possibility of a Lewis leadership, it is hard to plot a path to the ballot for him unless he is the designated successor of the party’s Corbynite wing.

As I wrote in November, Rebecca Long-Bailey, currently the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, is now widely expected to be the preferred successor come the next leadership election, for four reasons.  Over at PoliticsHome, Kevin Schofield tips her to receive a big job in the post Article 50 reshuffle.  The first is that she has a majority of 12,541, capable of surviving even a landslide. The second is that she has a record of proven loyalty, both to the leadership and to the trade union left. Her personal proximity to the trade union left is the third reason. The fourth reason is that there is an expectation that there will be an overwhelming pressure within the parliamentary Labour party that the next leader be a woman. It wouldn’t be wholly surprising if that results in an all-woman shortlist. 

If the support of the party’s Corbynites flows to Long-Bailey, it will be hard to plot a path to the ballot for Lewis as well. His situation at the moment looks to me very similar to Chuka Umunna’s; he had committed enough heresies to leave him without a base on the party’s soft left, but had not yet convinced the party’s Blairites that he was one of theirs. In the membership, if Lewis does vote against triggering Article 50, he could be almost anyone’s candidate. The difficulty is that can easily translate into to being nobody’s candidate. 

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

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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