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The Brexit amendments that could defeat Theresa May

Tory rebels push for continued single market membership and a guaranteed vote on the final Brexit deal. 

The government's victory in last night's EU Withdrawal Bill vote was superficially comfortable. The Brexiteers won the vote by 326-290, with seven Labour MPs (Ronnie Campbell, Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, John Mann, Dennis Skinner and Graham Stringer) backing the bill and six abstaining. Only one Conservative MP (Ken Clarke) aided the Remainers by abstaining. 

But as Stephen wrote this morning, life now gets harder for Theresa May. Within minutes of the bill's passage after midnight, MPs were queuing up to table amendments. Tory Remainers have long regarded the bill's committee stage as their moment. 

A total of 136 amendments and 29 clauses have been tabled by MPs. This includes 24 by the Labour leadership, but even May's most ardent opponents are unlikely to back anything with Jeremy Corbyn's name on it. For this reason, the amendments to watch are those tabled by Labour and Tory backbenchers. 

Nine Conservative rebels (including Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve, Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry) have demanded that the government "empower Parliament to control the length and basic terms of transitional arrangements". At present, though May has accepted the need for a transitional period after Brexit (or "implementation period" as she prefers to call it), she has ruled out continued membership of the single market and the customs union. But Labour's changed stance creates a potential parliamentary majority for a softer transition. A Tory amendment explicitly calls for the UK to "retain the provisions of the European Economic Area Act 1993 as part of domestic legislation beyond exit day" (in effect, guaranteeing continued single market membership). 

The same nine Tory rebels have also called for the government to ensure that the final Brexit deal is "approved by statute passed by parliament" (as May has promised) and for ministers to "remove the exclusion of the Charter of Fundamental Rights from retained EU law" (the charter guarantees a panoply of human rights). Twelve Conservative MPs have backed a reduction in the so-called "Henry VIII powers", which would allow ministers to make sweeping changes to UK law without parliamentary approval. 

Though it was the public who voted for Brexit (the first time a referendum had not affirmed the status quo), it is MPs who will determine the form it takes. For decades, it was Eurosceptics who revered parliamentary sovereignty. But as Remainers seek a softer Brexit, and as Leavers seek an unimpeded withdrawal, their roles have now been reversed. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.