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25 January 2017updated 06 Aug 2021 2:42pm

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn caught out by Theresa May’s promise to publish Brexit plan

The Prime Minister took Labour by surprise with her announcement that there will be a white paper of the government’s objectives for EU withdrawal.

By Anoosh Chakelian

It is becoming increasingly difficult for Labour to find a dividing line with the Tories on Brexit. This week, following the Supreme Court’s ruling that MPs will vote on Article 50, Jeremy Corbyn thought he’d found one.

Along with Tory rebels and other opposition parties, Labour began urging Theresa May to produce a white paper of her Brexit plan for Parliament to scrutinise. This would allow the House to debate her proposals for negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU before voting on triggering Article 50.

“We will be seeking to lay amendments to ensure proper scrutiny and accountability throughout the process,” shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said yesterday. “That starts with a white paper or plan.”

The government equivocated. Brexit Secretary David Davis told the Commons he would introduce a “straightforward” bill, focusing narrowly on Article 50, “within days”. Ministers claimed May’s Lancaster House speech was a thorough enough plan without a white paper.

This set the scene favourably for Corbyn at PMQs today. He could hammer her for shying away from scrutiny. But after a planted question by a Conservative MP asking May for a white paper, she announced that the government will indeed be publishing one:

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“We will ensure Parliament has every opportunity to provide that scrutiny . . . I can confirm to the House that our plan will be set out in a white paper.”

This caught Corbyn by surprise, who rather lamely had to improvise his first question, asking when the white paper would come out.

It’s a clever tactic. It stops May from appearing vulnerable to Labour pressure. Publishing the white paper also won’t cause her much grief, considering Labour’s desires for Brexit are pretty similar to hers. Basically, some kind of bespoke free trade agreement with the EU, but not membership of the single market.

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Without an alternative vision for Brexit, Corbyn was relying on condemning May for shirking scrutiny, or having no clear plan. Following her announcement that there will be a white paper, he has now lost that line of attack.

Having whipped his MPs to vote through Article 50, the Labour leader is left with very little leverage to shape Brexit – or to contrast his party’s line on Brexit with that of the Tories.