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31 January 2019

Four things we learnt about Labour and Brexit this week

A second referendum is dead, but Labour's Brexit position is getting softer.

By Stephen Bush

The defeat of Yvette Cooper’s amendment mostly wasn’t about Cooper’s amendment

Yvette Cooper’s amendment to seek an extension to the Article 50 process was defeated because although 17 Conservative MPs rebelled to vote for it, 14 Labour MPs voted against it while ten, including five shadow ministers, deliberately abstained. (An eleventh, Paul Flynn, was unable to vote due to illness, and a Conservative MP, Alberto Costa, was paired with him and also did not vote as result.)

They weren’t doing so because they regard a three month extension as beyond the pale but because many of the rebels fear that a success for Cooper’s amendment at this stage would have given succour to supporters of a second referendum. One rebel told me that they were “sick of the bullshit” and that only through defeating the Cooper amendment now could they bring an end to the People’s Vote campaign and the meme that another referendum could be secured through a U-Turn by the Labour leadership.

But that isn’t to say that, if Parliament again fails to agree anything on 13 February, which seems likely, then most of the Labour rebels won’t then vote for an extension to Article 50 if need be.

though it was a little bit

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It didn’t help that Cooper’s amendment didn’t really “prevent no deal” – it merely gave Parliament the provision to delay it a little bit.

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That weighed heavily on the minds of Conservative MPs. They see that Nick Boles is facing efforts to deselect him as an MP and many asked themselves if it was worth it merely to delay the cliff, not least as few believe that Theresa May will take them over it voluntarily.

On the Labour side, that the amendment did very little to actually prevent no deal made many MPs, including those who did eventually back it, reluctant to stick their neck out for it.

Among the opposition frontbench there was considerable anxiety that passing the amendment would have been a disaster for Labour. One junior minister told me before the vote that they feared that passing Cooper’s amendment would allow May to call an election accusing the party of blocking Brexit. “It’s true that if we leave in June, no-one in my constituency is going to care in July,” they said, “But what if May uses the time to call a vote in April?”

That view was shared at Cabinet level, too, with Jon Trickett, Ian Lavery, Angela Rayner and John Healey all sounding a note of caution about the Cooper amendment. I’m told that Rayner is of the view that the Cabinet will have to extend anyway and that it would have been foolish in the extreme for Labour to make the first move.

This week has been a defeat for second referendumers

This has been a good week for Jeremy Corbyn: it has been visibly demonstrated that there is no majority in Parliament for a second vote but he hasn’t had to either embrace it or kill it himself directly.

It’s not just that modest amendments to merely delay a no deal Brexit, backed by an MP who has committed to uphold the referendum result and has strong bona fides with the type of MP most likely to vote against a second referendum could not pass and lost by a heavy margin but that many of those who voted for the Cooper amendment did so with extreme reluctance.

As most pro-second referendum MPs accept, if a majority cannot be found in Parliament to extend with a little over 50 days until we leave without a deal, a majority is not going to emerge to put the question back to the country without a major shift from the Tory leadership. “It’s possible, she likes a gamble,” one optimistic MP said. Others now are putting their hopes in the fact that Article 50 can be unilaterally revoked at will.

“I now think if it doesn’t happen it will be because we’re in a panic on 27, 28 March and the politics will have shifted,” one MP told me, “But it feels more likely that we’ll end up voting for a deal.”

There is a great deal of anger among parliamentary supporters of the People’s Vote that junior shadow ministers who abstained have faced no sanction and that junior ministers were reassured by both Lavery and Rayner that they could safely abstain.

But they know full well that none of the 14 Labour MPs who actively rebelled – as opposed to the further 10 who abstained – are Corbynite loyalists or anything like it, and that the path to another referendum runs through a highly implausible path.

But Labour will almost certainly have a softer Brexit position at the next election than the last

This week’s other big legislative event was the passage of the second reading of the immigration bill, which caused consternation in Labourworld after that party announced it would abstain on second reading.

The party had long planned to abstain but when the whip dropped from a three line (must attend) to one-line (attend if you want but it’s no skin off our nose), it alerted MPs and activists that something was up. (When the whip is first presented to MPs, they are simply told whether they need to attend the vote or not, in order for them to manage their diaries: official instructions on how to vote go out nearer the time.)

Labour’s planned abstention was about managing the concerns of a minority of MPs who didn’t want to vote against ending the free movement of people and to extend Article 50 in the same week. But it fell apart thanks to the opposition of the majority of the parliamentary Labour party and the Labour membership.

That’s significant for two reasons: it shows that in the event that a genuine majority can be found for a second referendum and a real groundswell behind a second vote generated in the Labour party grassroots (as opposed to the grudging “well, okay then” sentiment that it currently attracts) then there is no real prospect of the Labour leadership being able to resist that.

The problem though is there seems to be little to no prospect of that happening. But it is significant in that I think it will be difficult to clear a party programme that ends free movement past the Labour party membership at the next election, who will have an increased role in setting party policy if the next contest occurs after the party’s democracy review has been implemented. That, in turn, means that Labour will be committed to a significantly softer Brexit position than the one it ran on in 2017, when it pledged to end free movement.