Theresa May is making a habit of avoiding unnecessary defeats. In the Richmond Park by-election, where the Liberal Democrats triumphed, the Conservatives chose not to stand a candidate. In parliament, they today accepted a Labour motion calling on the government to publish a “plan for leaving the EU” before Article 50 is triggered. The Tories gave way after as many as 40 of their number threatened to vote with the opposition tomorrow. Labour’s motion has no legal standing but May has avoided a symbolic defeat.
She has also done so at little cost. Labour’s motion is sufficiently vague to allow the government to avoid publishing a full plan (and nothing close to a White Paper). Significantly, the Tories added an amendment stating that “this House will respect the wishes of the United Kingdom as expressed in the referendum on 23 June; and further calls on the Government to invoke Article 50 by 31 March 2017”.
For No.10, this is ammunition for the battles to come. If, as expected, the Supreme Court rules that parliament must vote on whether to trigger Article 50, Labour and others will table amendments to the resulting bill. Among other things, these would call for the government to seek full access to the single market. May, who has pledged to control EU immigration, has so far avoided this pledge. And with good reason. At the Christian Democrat conference in Germany today, Angela Merkel restated what has long been Europe’s position: “We will not allow any cherry picking. The four basic freedoms must be safeguarded – freedom of movement for people, goods, services and financial market products. Only then can there be access to the single market.”
There is no parliamentary majority for blocking Brexit (MPs will vote for Article 50 if the amendments fall). But there is one for single market membership. Remain supporters insist that the 23 June result imposed no conditions. But May, and most Leavers, assert that free movement must be controlled (as the Out campaign promised).
At the moment of confrontation, the Conservatives will argue that respecting the result means not binding their hands. When MPs argue otherwise, expect them to point to tomorrow’s vote. One senior Labour MP confessed that he would not vote for single market membership if it was framed as “disrespecting Brexit”. The question for May is how many will prove more obstructive.