Why Labour could back the single market amendment

Keir Starmer says a Norway-style model isn't the answer for Britain. But that may not stop Labour whipping MPs to vote for EEA membership. 

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Membership of the European Economic Area is “not the answer” for Britain, Keir Starmer said this morning. The shadow Brexit secretary’s words have inevitably been viewed as a snub to those in Labour who wish to see the party vote to remain in the single market when the Lords amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill reaches the Commons next week. 

But despite Starmer’s interview on the Marr Show – and the leadership’s insistence that it does not back single market membership – could Labour yet whip its MPs to vote for the amendment? That question is distinct from the issue Starmer was addressing this morning: whether Labour should back EEA membership as a rule. The shadow Brexit secretary has not ruled out supporting the amendment (tabled by Labour peer and media entrepreneur Waheed Alli). 

As is often the case with amendments designed to attract cross-party support in the Lords, its wording is vague. It demands “a negotiating objective of the Government to ensure that an international agreement has been made to continue to participate in the European Economic Area after exit day”. 

The looser notion of EEA participation is not the same as the Norway-style membership that Starmer explicitly rejected on Marr. Indeed, it can be argued that Labour’s desire for a relationship that delivers “the exact same benefits” of the single market, restated by Starmer this morning, can only truly be achieved within the EEA. 

The range of interpretations the amendment allows – and its lack of partisan baggage – bodes well for attracting Conservative rebels. Eleven Tory MPs are on record as having backed EEA membership, and Dominic Grieve’s words on Friday suggest they may well pick their biggest fight with the government yet. 

Were Conservatives to rebel, Labour would likely be able to convince some of the Brexiteers on its own benches, such as Dennis Skinner, to vote against the government (as in the case of previous amendments). The amendment's cross-party origins, and the weakness of its wording compared to previous Remain efforts, make it a more attractive political option for both the Labour leadership and Tory rebels.  

In view of all this, it is striking that Labour has not ruled out backing the amendment. Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman said last week that whipping arrangements would be revealed nearer the time. The government's Brexit woes strengthen the incentive for Labour to reject ministers' handling of negotiations by voting for the Alli amendment. 

As such, there is every reason to think that, despite Corbyn's repeated rejection of EEA membership, he could yet whip MPs to back it.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.