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6 June 2018

Could Labour really keep the United Kingdom in the EEA?

It all depends on Conservative dissidents.

By Stephen Bush

Could Jeremy Corbyn keep the United Kingdom in the European Economic Area if he wanted to? That’s the criticism being levelled at the Labour leader after his move to whip Labour MPs to abstain on the cross-party amendment to keep the United Kingdom in the EEA.

The consensus among political journalists – which I share – is that the row is much ado about nothing as there simply aren’t enough Conservative dissidents to keep the United Kingdom in the EEA.

But my old boss Ben Brogan always used to tell me to “stress-test the narrative”. Could I be wrong?

To overcome the working Conservative-DUP majority, you need seven Tory rebels, as votes of course count double – one from the government’s total, and one onto the opposition total. But crucially you need seven rebels net: because if a Labour MP votes against staying in the EEA, that cancels out one of your Tory rebels.

So actually you need 14 Conservative rebels at the outside because of the seven committed Labour Leavers: Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer, Dennis Skinner, Frank Field, Kelvin Hopkins, John Mann, and Ronnie Campbell.  Then you have the six converts: Caroline Flint, John Spellar, Yvonne Fovargue, Kevin Barron, Helen Jones and Kevan Jones, all of whom broke the whip to abstain rather than vote against the Withdrawal Bill in September 2017. Perhaps some would abstain again, but at least three of that group would vote against any move to keep the United Kingdom in the EEA.

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So at a conservative estimate, you need 17 Conservative rebels. This is a very generous number: I assuming that none of the Labour politicians who privately don’t want to vote for the EEA but are happy to shelter under the umbrella of “Jeremy is whipping me, what can I do?” would, if pushed, vote against a pro-EEA whip.

But in terms of keeping the United Kingdom in the single market against the wishes of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, the crucial number is 25: at that point, we will fairly be able to talk of the Labour leader as the crucial roadblock to the United Kingdom staying in the single market.