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6 June 2018

Labour hopes to avoid a major rebellion of pro-EU MPs with its new “soft Brexit” stance

The party’s leadership hopes its Withdrawal Bill amendment will also keep Remainer supporters in the wider party and the rest of the country on side.

By Stephen Bush

It’s a clever fudge, but who made it? That’s the question of the day over Labour’s new Brexit policy: an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill that would commit the government to “full access” to the internal market of the EU with “shared institutions and regulations”, the full text of which has been leaked to the Times’s Henry Zeffman.

It bears the intellectual imprint of the IPPR’s “shared market” proposals, and it secures the positional shift that Keir Starmer and Diane Abbott have both been advocating for behind the scenes.

But it’s also a clever way to blow up the cross-party amendment to keep the United Kingdom in the European Economic Area without suffering too much political damage.  Now, it’s true to say that the EEA amendment comes pre-blown up. As Keir Starmer said this morning on the Today programme, there are too many Labour opponents, on the backbenches as well as within the party leadership, for it to pass the House of Commons. As far as realistic opportunities to defeat the government go, Labour’s big prospects for victory next Tuesday are on the customs union and the meaningful vote on the deal.

What the Labour leadership will hope it has done, however, is avoid a rebellion outside the core 50 pro-European rebels and a repeat of the internal trauma that accompanied the Article 50 vote, while keeping their pro-European supporters in the wider party and the country on side. Will it work? That the Times’s splash is “Labour bids for ‘softest’ Brexit deal in new shift” and the Guardian‘s is “Labour seeks full access to single market” suggests it probably will.

Of course, Labour doesn’t adjust its housing policy, its NHS policy or its higher education to meet the needs of the House of Commons as it is currently constituted. The leadership’s position is also a result of serious opposition to the EEA as an end state even after the next election; a stance that puts it at odds with the preferences of the largest single block of the parliamentary party and with the wider party as well. And while that divide can be elegantly fudged in opposition, it might not survive the heat of an election campaign – to say nothing of what it would mean for a Labour government after.

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