This is a Vote Leave government - Labour should scrutinise it that way

Labour is in a good place on the Tory Brexit strategy. It is less clear on its own.

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It is good to see a disparate opposition uniting beyond its own boundaries to challenge the government’s Brexit strategy. It is also right to concentrate on the demand for scrutiny and accountability. On this of all issues, people on both sides of the referendum debate will think that parliamentary sovereignty must be seen to work.

The government’s decision to give absolute priority to ending free movement leads, inevitably, to a short, sharp exit from the the single market with all the costs and disruption that involves. The spiralling pound is only a symbol of the problems to come. It must feel good for Labour to have the endorsement of pro-European Tory MPs; for that matter it must feel good simply to feel relevant again. But Labour’s liberalism on free movement may actually make it easier for Theresa May’s ministers to defend their own ground.

Procedural arguments in the Commons rarely cut through to the wider public. More important is how the debate is perceived. For all the media plaudits for Labour’s improved tactics and focus, there’s a real danger of winning the Westminster battle and losing the popular war. They risk appearing to be the mirror opposite of the government, prioritising the single market so strongly that changes to free movement are assumed to be impossible. Unfortunately, this is the argument that was fought and lost in the referendum campaign and, as yet, there are few signs of a remorseful public. If anything, polls suggest a larger majority in favour of going ahead with Brexit. Even if the public gradually accept that the government’s strategy is economic suicide, they will not reward a Labour Party that seemed so out of sympathy with their core concern over migration.

Instead of critiquing the government’s strategy, the opposition should be holding it to account for the promises made. One of the clearest was Boris Johnson’s on the single market and ending free movement: “I’m in favour of cake; and I’m in favour of eating it”.  Boris Johnson is now the Foreign Secretary, one of the three ministers charged with negotiating Brexit.

Labour should be demanding the whole of the cake. If senior ministers in the current government promised that migration could be controlled and market access maintained it is their job now to deliver, and the opposition’s to demand that they do. (The promise was far more important that £350m for the NHS)

While we don’t know exactly what voters were thinking on 23rd June, there is enough polling data to know that only small minorities favour either an end to all migration or total free movement. Effective opposition would speak for that centre ground majority. It would set out how a combination of limits to free movement (perhaps through an emergency brake) could combine with domestic measures around skills, labour rights, the enforcement of legislation and real shift of resources to the areas facing most social disruption from migration could actually give that sense of control sought by voters.

Setting out a Brexit policy that a majority of voters would endorse should be Labour’s priority, not second guessing the detailed negotiations in which the party will have no say. There are few signs that Labour will take this route. On the one side, Labour’s pro-EU and more moderate MPs have simply accepted that free movement is just part of the package and make no efforts to articulate the views of voters. On the other ,Labour’s (pro or anti EU) left clearly regards free movement as an absolute principle in its own right.

Landing opposition blows is all very well, but if voters ask what Labour would do instead they may not like the answer.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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