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  1. Politics
2 February 2017

Labour has taken the riskiest Brexit bet of all

The party is hoping that EU withdrawal will vanish as an issue. Its wish is unlikely to be granted.

By Stephen Bush

Good morning. The House of Commons has passed the government’s Article 50 bill at the second reading.

“We have lift-off!” roars the Mail, “Now we’re on our way out of the EU” cheers the Express, “Britain takes step into the unknown” is the i’s more cautious splash, “Brexfast” quips the Mirror while the FT goes for: “Commons gives May green light to trigger Britain’s break from EU”.

But it ain’t over until it’s over and the parliamentary battle has a long way to run. Many MPs believe that now they’ve shown they accept that we are leaving, they have more licence to hold the government’s feet to the fire as far as the Ins and Outs of Brexit are concerned. One issue in particular that is already provoking Conservative MPs to revolt is the right to remain for EU citizens already living in Britain, the Times reports. “May faces Tory revolt after MPs back Brexit”  is that paper’s splash.

The government will not find committee stage so easy, particularly in the Lords, and although there is no question that the government will secure the right to trigger Article 50 when all’s said and done, there’s still the possibility for Parliament to bind the government’s hands as far as the negotiations are concerned. Small wonder that Tim Farron is in an optimistic mood. He sat down with the FT’s Henry Mance to talk Europe, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn.

On the subject of Farron, I’m struck by the point he made to journalists at Moncrieff’s yesterday: it’s easy to forget that when Charlie Kennedy made opposition to the Iraq war his signature issue that he was ploughing a very lonely furrow indeed. Now of course, almost everybody claims – and for the most part, genuinely believes – that they opposed the war from the start and that the whole thing was an entirely predictable disaster. Don’t bet against a similar act of public amnesia if Brexit goes badly.

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And while the focus is on Brexit as an issue of internal party management, whether that’s in the Conservative Party or in Labour’s ongoing Brexit woes, the chances that Britain will secure a bad deal or no deal at all are very high.

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Speaking of Labour…47 Labour MPs voted against the three-line whip, and many more went missing in action. Dawn Butler and Rachel Maskell have joined the list of shadow cabinet outs.

“A fifth of Labour MPs defy Corybn as Brexit bill passes” is the Guardian‘s splash. I’m reliably informed that 7,000 members have left the party over its Article 50 stance. For that party, the next week is likely to be dominated by the Clive Lewis saga: will he stay or will he go? And, inevitably, all that will fuel further speculation about the Labour leadership and Corbyn’s position at the top of the party.

In my view, the threat against Corbyn is somewhat overwritten. Yes, the Article 50 vote is a breach with his supporters, but anyone looking down the list of Labour dissidents to find a possible new leadership will look a long time. Most of the rebels have little in common other than committed pro-Europeanism and/or a heavily pro-Remain electorate. (That’s true, too, of those MPs who went AWOL last night.)

As far as not standing up to Brexit is concerned, the reality is that if Corbyn had whipped his MPs the other way, it might have emboldened a few more Conservatives to rebel, but they’d have been cancelled out by nervous Labour MPs in pro-Leave seats and by the pro-Brexit votes of the DUP.

On the question of the DUP and Northern Ireland. One thing is clear: nowhere near enough thought has been put into the question of how you maintain an open border between the North and the South. It may be that the DUP ends up the biggest loser in all this as the easiest and most workable solution, economically and politically, is to create a slightly harder border between Northern Ireland and the Scottish ports in order to maintain an entirely open one between the North and the South.

There’s a victory, there, for the SNP, too. Whatever is extended towards the Irish border they will be able to claim will be extended to Scotland after independence.

The big bet that Theresa May and the Conservatives are making is they can overcome these and other hurdles through force of will. The big bet that the Liberal Democrats are making is that they won’t. The difficulty for Labour is that their bet is that Brexit will vanish as an issue: and that looks the riskiest bet of all.