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The EU Withdrawal Bill is just the start of Theresa May's uphill battle

Many in business and at Westminster privately expect the government to collapse sooner rather than later.

Monday night is fight night: the government faces its first major vote since the loss of its parliamentary majority, over the second reading of the legislation formerly known as the Great Repeal Bill. (Parliamentary clerks insisted it be called the EU Withdrawal Bill on the grounds that it doesn't repeal anything and that adjectives in bill names are like, sooooo American.) 

Theresa May ought to be home and dry on this one, as Conservative Remainers don't want to play and her majority will in any case be bolstered by Labour rebels (one of their number, Caroline Flint, confirmed she will vote with the government on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning).

But the bad news for the PM is that every night is fight night. Conservative whips are buttering up their charges who will have to get used to staying in the Commons late into the night. Labour's secondary target with late sittings are the DUP, who of course have further to travel to get back to their constituencies and for whom late votes are even more disruptive.

Minority government is painful, which is why so many in business and at Westminster privately expect the government to collapse sooner rather than later.

But there's a big change in British politics since our last period of majority-less government: the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, which sharply limits what constitutes a confidence vote and makes it far harder for a government to fall. (It even allows a 14-day do-over after a confidence vote, further limiting the government's weakness to an election it doesn't want.) The government can lose even a major vote on its budget or on whether or not to go to war, dust itself off and carry on almost as if nothing has happened. (Don't forget that David Cameron did both, with tax credits and the Syria vote.)

The snap election shows us that any governing party who wants an election can get one, as the opposition parties can hardly turn down an opportunity to change who runs the country. But it still provides a great deal of protection to the sitting government – and, therefore, a lot more leverage to Conservative backbenchers and a lot less chance of another unexpected election that many in the City of London hope will ensure the softest of Brexits.

But there's an important caveat: although that's all true in terms of what the Fixed Term Parliaments Act means in law, it's not as widely understood by politicians as it perhaps should be. There's always a conflict about what a constitution actually says and about what people think it says.  

As far as the British constitution goes, what's written is clear – the government is safe barring a string of well-located by-elections and can shrug off any number of defeats. (Parking for a moment what those defeats do to, in no particular order: Conservative chances at the next election, Theresa May's hope of remaining as PM, and Britain's chances of a disorderly exit from the EU.) But as to what MPs and pundits actually think should happen when the government starts collecting regular defeats – well, that's not clear at all.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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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.