How a minority of Labour MPs could defeat Tory rebels on the single market

So much for soft Brexit.

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Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesperson has ruled out Labour support for British membership of the European Economic Area following last night’s meeting of the parliamentary Labour party.

A great deal of ink has been spilled on Corbyn’s views about the European Union, the single market, the posted workers’ directive and god knows what else. It's true that the Labour leader is a Eurosceptic by instinct and that his views on the issue haven't materially changed since he voted against the Lisbon Treaty: the legal foundation of the modern EU.

But while that's interesting if you are writing a piece about Jeremy Corbyn’s intellectual and political tradition, it's largely redundant as far as the struggle to keep the United Kingdom in the single market goes. Corbyn’s preference is a drastic breach with the EU but he also wants to defeat the government wherever possible, which pushes him in a more pro-European direction.

The thing is, as it stands, Corbyn's inner circle is far from convinced that they can defeat the government over the single market. The more important blow to Remainers at last night's PLP meeting is the schism on the Labour right: while Wes Streeting, Stephen Kinnock and Chris Leslie both spoke in favour of the EEA option, both John Mann and John Spellar spoke against it, while the likes of Caroline Flint and Ed Miliband are also opposed.

Those names are important, because of that four, only one – the younger Miliband – is going to have their vote swayed should Corbyn whip Labour MPs in favour of the EEA option, as he still harbours ambitions of returning to the frontbench sometime. That's a pretty accurate reflection of where the PLP on the whole is: there is a majority among Labour MPs for an EEA-type final relationship, but the minority is large enough to outweigh any Conservative rebels on the single market question.

And that’s a far bigger problem for Remainers than Corbyn’s feelings about the European Court of Justice.

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.