It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, buoyed by the mass rebellion over the EEA in the Lords on Tuesday, the opposition’s pro-EU MPs are beginning to flex their muscles.
Writing in the Indy last night, five MPs from the north-east – as Brexity as it gets – have demanded a second EU referendum on the terms of the deal. Two of the party’s Scottish MPs have publicly said they will defy any whip to vote against or abstain on Lord Alli’s EEA amendment when it reaches the commons.
Game-changers? Not necessarily. But we can expect more of these interventions as we get closer to votes in the Commons, expected at some point in the next fortnight. As much as Tuesday’s action in the Lords has been dismissed as a spasm of Europhile pique from peers, much of the PLP is in exactly the same place.
None of this matters, though, unless the leadership budges. Will they? They say not. Sources close to Corbyn tell the Times there is “no chance” of a last minute change in policy to backing membership of the single market, despite the Lords vote.
Corbyn’s spokesman told reporters yesterday that doing so would contravene both Labour’s commitment not to end up as a rule-taker after Brexit and its economic programme, dependent as it is on changes to the existing single market model on issues like state aid. He did not, however, rule out Labour whipping its MPs to back the EEA amendment.
What interventions from pro-EU MPs make clear is that Labour would be pushing against an open door if they did. And though the prospect of a rebellion cuts both ways – Labour’s Brexiteers and some of those representing constituencies which voted heavily to leave could find it a bridge too far – there is every chance it could prove an irresistible opportunity to defeat the government.
Backing the amendment is an issue distinct from backing full-fat membership of the single market, whatever pro-EU rebels say, which would make doing so within the confines of Labour’s red lines – which call for a “new and strong relationship with the single market”. Its criteria aren’t really incompatible with Lord Alli’s amendment, which merely instructs the government to negotiate future membership of the EEA.
Labour could conceivably say it would negotiate that new and strong relationship under the EEA’s auspices. And if Tory rebels – of which there are up to 11 on record as having backed EEA membership – had the stomach for it and picked the Alli amendment as their chosen fight with the government, there is every chance Labour could convince Brexiteers such as Dennis Skinner to join them in defeating the government, as has been the case on previous amendments to the withdrawal bill.
Such a scenario is by no means the same as the leadership signing up to the Open Britain vision of Brexit and, for that reason, we shouldn’t rule out seeing it happen yet.