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29 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:24pm

Emily Thornberry exposes the Labour headache it doesn’t want to talk about

Parliament’s meaningful vote looks an awful lot like an elephant trap for the Opposition.

By Stephen Bush

Labour’s most committed Remainers don’t, on the whole, have much time for Emily Thornberry. The dislike is deep-rooted and has its origins in the pre-Corbyn past, but has been intensified by a number of incidents since Thornberry took over the foreign affairs brief.

That personal animus is part of why Thornberry’s remarks at Chatham House yesterday attracted such a hostile response from the party’s pro-European ultras. The Shadow Foreign Secretary said that the government’s withdrawal agreement will “probably pass” the Labour party’s six tests, sparking anger and concern. However, it is worth reading Thornberry’s remarks in full [square brackets mine]:

What we have said is quite clearly you cannot negotiate everything before the divorce. We need to have an interim period when the status quo prevails. So the question then is, what is the nature of the divorce?

So far if the evidence of the past few months is anything to go on, it is going to be a ‘blah, blah, blah’ divorce. It is not going to make any decisions, it is going to continue to kick things down the road. We don’t seem to have come to any difficult decisions at the moment.

So the difficulty with a meaningful vote in October – which we have secured – is what is it that we are going to be agreeing on ? We have our six tests. If you hold up ‘blah, blah, blah’ to the six tests, it will probably pass it and then we leave the EU and then we are in the status quo and during that period there has to be a negotiation as to what our final relationship is going to be.

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So I just hope upon hope we have a general election in the meantime and the grown-ups turn up, so it is decree nisi [an order by a court of law deciding the date a marriage will end unless a good reason not to grant a divorce is produced] rather than a decree absolute [the final legal document declaring the divorce is now finished and resolved].”

The full remarks are critical of two things: firstly, the government but also, by implication, the six tests. Thornberry’s remarks are unhelpful to Labour, but not, I think, in the way that has been widely reported – by “revealing” that the party will ultimately back the government’s Brexit deal – but by advertising two problems of Labour’s own making: its six tests for Brexit and the looming “meaningful vote” over the government’s final deal, both of which were the creation of Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary.

(Some important “previously on the Labour Party” to remember: Thornberry didn’t want to give up her dual role shadowing both the Brexit brief and the foreign affairs brief, which she held during the Labour leadership race of 2016.)

The brilliance of the six texts is also their downside: they are a form of words that everyone in the Labour Party, from Kate Hoey to Chuka Umunna can agree on, because everyone can, when push comes to shove, twist the six tests to suit them. This is also in the interests of Labour’s frontbench, because they can reach a decision about how to handle Brexit first and then declare the government’s Brexit strategy to have failed or passed the six tests after.

But the six tests now have two problems: the first is that the inconclusive election result now means that how Labour votes on Brexit potentially has real-world outcomes, as opposed to merely political ones. The second is the government’s promise of a so-called “meaningful vote” on the deal.

Back in February of last year, I wrote why the “meaningful vote” was a bear trap for the Opposition parties: ultimately, both the Article 50 process and the British constitution make it highly likely that the choice that Parliament will be presented with will be no choice at all. This is something that Starmer now recognises and is trying to further amend the Withdrawal Bill to make the meaningful vote actually “meaningful”. But the problem is that Conservative Remainers are highly reluctant to back amendments from the Labour frontbench, so it is possible, perhaps even likely, that the “meaningful vote” will be between “leaving with May’s deal” and “no deal at all”.

In any case, the meaningful vote is fraught with danger for the Labour party, because it marks the moment when the party’s electorally lucrative ambiguity on Brexit risks being shattered one way or the other, when it must either become fully a Leave party or fully a Remain one.

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