The new establishment cannot be trusted with Brexit, writes Robert Philpot
On Wednesday night, in what is fast becoming a regular feature of the parliamentary calendar, Jeremy Corbyn once again ordered Labour members of parliament not to support a motion to keep Britain in the single market and customs union.
Nearly 50 of his backbenchers defied the whip and backed the move, but the government – despite its wafer-thin majority – cruised to an easy win.
Thanks to the Labour frontbench, Theresa May’s hard Brexit remains on track. As Wes Streeting suggested last weekend: ‘On the UK’s future relationship with the European Union – the single biggest issue facing our country in a generation – we find ourselves in the terrible position where it is the Labour party that currently stands as the single biggest barrier to the UK’s membership of the single market and customs union.’
‘With Labour, there would be a majority in the commons for single market membership, but not without us. If the Labour party announced tomorrow that we would keep Britain in the single market and customs union, it would be a game-changing moment in British politics. The policy would command a majority in the commons and a majority in the country.
The Labour leader’s response to these arguments is to peddle the myth that, as he put it to Robert Peston last weekend, ‘the single market is dependent on membership of the European Union.’
This will, of course, come as news to Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway, all of which are members of the single market but not the EU.
For good measure, Corbyn also cited EU state aid rules as another reason why he wanted to be outside the single market.
But, as Labour MP Chuka Umunna graphically demonstrated, that claim is not true either. Membership of the single market and customs union is not a barrier to a government giving cash to its own industries, with France and Germany among the largest state aid spenders in Europe.
Corbyn’s position is not without principle or consistency. He opposed Britain staying in the EU in 1975, consistently voted against EU treaties in parliament as a backbencher, and half-heartedly campaigned to remain in 2016, while some in his team allegedly worked behind the scenes to sabotage the Labour In campaign.
The Labour leader is soon, though, going to have to choose between his long-held opposition to the EU and his political interests.
An important paper by the psephologist John Curtice published last month underlines the extent to which the party’s performance during the general election was underpinned by the perception that it favours a soft Brexit. Thus while many voters were unsurprisingly confused about Labour’s stance, a mere four per cent believed it supported the hard Brexit both May and Corbyn currently seem intent upon. By contrast, 38 per cent of voters correctly identified this as the Tories’ position.
As Streeting correctly suggested, once you add in those who wish to remain in the EU, there is a clear majority in the country opposed to Britain leaving the single market and the customs union.
There is, moreover, even greater support for this stance among Labour party members.
Thus far the voice of members has not been heard on this issue. Old-style machine politics by Labour’s new establishment kept Brexit off of the agenda at last year’s party conference.
If, in just over a year’s time, Britain is dragged into a hard Brexit by May and the Tory right, it will only have been possible due to Corbyn’s collusion.
And the overwhelmingly pro-EU young voters who helped Labour deprive the Conservatives of their majority last June will rightly feel betrayed.
Absolutely the best landmark
This weekend marks Donald Trump’s first year in office. Last week, the president uttered his 2,000th false or misleading claim since entering office. He is, according to the Washington Post, raking them up at a rate of 5.6 per day.
As if to mark the occasion, foreign secretary Boris Johnson, Britain’s premier Trump apologist and cheerleader, popped up to correct a misapprehension we have all been labouring under since last June’s referendum. The promise of £350m a week for the NHS plastered on the ‘Leave’ campaign buses, Johnson told the Guardian, was a mistake. The true figure, he suggested, would be £438m. The master in the White House could not have put it better.
Closer to Europe?
Johnson’s bridge-building record is not a great one. As mayor of London, he presided over the fiasco of the garden bridge which left taxpayers £37m out of pocket. Still, onwards and upwards. Yesterday, the foreign secretary floated the idea of a bridge crossing the English channel. Its prospects do not look good. As Alan Dunlop, an architect and professor at the University of Liverpool, said: ‘It’s [one of the] world’s busiest shipping lanes … It would be easier, and less expensive to just move France closer.’
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot