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27 June 2018

Corbyn suffered a CETA rebellion, but it’s Theresa May who has a bigger problem looming

In just ten days time, the cabinet is supposed to agree on a Brexit plan at a Chequers away-day.

By Patrick Maguire

Another Brexit vote, another Labour rebellion. Yesterday’s Commons votes on ratifying the EU’s free trade deals with Canada and Japan were hardly box office but, as they so often do, the party’s frontbench and MPs contrived to make it so.

Bizarrely, its MPs were whipped to abstain. As we all know by now, Labour’s official policy on Brexit and trade is to negotiate a customs union with the EU after the UK leaves. That, by its very nature, means giving trade access to third countries the EU has deals with. It’s sort of pointless otherwise. Why, then, were its MPs whipped not to vote for the ratification of either deal?

Plenty of them are asking the same question. On Brexit, Labour is better at creating them then answering them. 14 MPs defied the whip to vote in favour of CETA, while 17 voted for the deal with Japan. Politically, it’s a terrible look: Liam Fox – Liam Fox! – was the one extolling the virtues of EU trade policy in the Commons yesterday, while Barry Gardiner praised Bill Cash, refused to say whether a Labour government would ratify CETA and has been compared to Donald Trump. Ideological incoherence on Brexit often allows it to defeat the government, but yesterday’s didn’t even achieve that.

Those familiar with the thinking behind the whip justify it on the grounds that Labour is pro-trade but had reservations about both deals, and would renegotiate them in government. Gardiner’s office briefed MPs to that effect ahead of the votes, citing concerns that that the Canada deal had the potential to drive UK standards down (which some think is a spurious argument at best).

That’s one of the shadow international trade secretary’s pet arguments: Stephen has written before that Gardiner believes that the UK should use free trade deals to become an agent of left-wing policy and workers rights across the world. Yesterday he said that a Labour government would renegotiate the EU’s free trade deals. All 41 of them. Call that a Barry Island Brexit: a nice destination in theory, but actually very far away from where we are, with rewards that don’t quite justify the effort spent getting there.

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Bluntly, we are not going to Barry Island. Many Labour MPs don’t want to either. The party isn’t in government and, by the time it is, its Brexit policy means it will have to accept such deals as they are.

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That Gardiner isn’t on the same page as Keir Starmer on Brexit and trade is no secret. Recall his greatest hits: warning of Britain becoming a vassal state if it remained in the customs union and alleging that people were “playing up” the Irish border issue for political gain. Labour has nonetheless done a good job at finessing those pretty gaping differences of political opinion to its advantage. Until now, that is. Yesterday highlighted the potential for them to cause bigger problems as the Brexit debate moves onto knotty specifics rather than big picture, broad-brush stuff.

Labour had a lesson in what Theresa May is about to be rudely reminded of: that you can’t fudge things forever. We’re reaching the point where fundamental differences of opinion as to what Brexit is, or can be, can no longer be accommodated inside the same cabinet or shadow cabinet by substituting actual policy for vague statements of aspiration. Somebody has to lose.

The Prime Minister has an even bigger headache than Labour. In only ten days time the cabinet is meant to agree on a plan for Brexit at a Chequers away-day. The differences within it look as intractable as ever. It is impossible to reconcile the sort of super-soft, frictionless Brexit that Business Secretary Greg Clark spoke about in a speech at the Times CEO summit that enraged Brexiteers yesterday – he advocated a model that sounded as close to Norway as you can get without calling it Norway – with the hard break Boris Johnson is still noisily advocating.

In a nutshell, that is the problem for both Labour and the Tories: those determining its Brexit policy don’t agree whether leaving the EU should fundamentally be an exercise in damage limitation or an attempt to redraw Britain’s role in the world. With May heading to the European Council tomorrow, the gulf between what ministers in her inner-cabinet are saying doesn’t bode well either for her chances of making any progress at Chequers, let alone there.

Exasperated Tory MPs want meat on the bones. They are sounding increasingly like Kevin Keegan. She’s got to go to Brussels and get something. But how can she do that if half of her inner-cabinet won’t let her ask for it? Something has to give and it will inevitably have to be her relationship with hard Brexiteers. But the majority of her parliamentary party would love it if she beats them. Love it.