Theresa May is in real trouble on Brexit, but that’s no surprise. What is, a little bit anyhow, is the fight shown by Conservative MPs to stop no deal Brexit from happening. It wasn’t something I was counting on, particularly when you figure out that Tory voters aren’t going to thank them for it (even if they would have been equally upset if no deal went ahead and it was a disaster – but if no deal is stopped, the counterfactual can by definition never be realised). With this stand by MPs, including current members of the cabinet, May is trying to avoid the Cooper-Letwin amendment being passed, one that would call for an extension of the Article 50 period if no deal is agreed by parliament by giving MPs assurances on a vote to avoid no deal being held directly after the next meaningful vote slot, which is March 12th.
The issue is, May is trying to fudge, as ever. She won’t give assurances that such a vote would be a free vote, meaning MPs would just have to rebel against the whip anyway, so there is no point in the delay whatsoever. Also, she has burned them all so many times on Brexit, all of her MPs both Leavers and Remainers, that trust is understandably low. She could be left in the unenviable position of losing the vote on the Cooper-Letwin amendment, with several of her cabinet members defying the whip, and being in no position to sack any of them for fear of being left without people willing to serve in their stead.
Corbyn, meanwhile, has conspired to place himself in an even worse position. On the day the Independent Group split off from the Labour Party, I wrote that Corbyn had to come out and support a People’s Vote in order to cut the legs out from under Chuka and co and prevent as many MPs leaving over Brexit as possible. As usual, he’s done what he should have, but too late and in a totally cack-handed way. At the PLP meeting last night he announced that backing a People’s Vote was on – but was still humming and hawing about timing, as if Brexit wasn’t less than five weeks away. Owen Smith apparently asked him 23 times whether the EU referendum Labour was going to propose would have Remain on the ballot. Corbyn refused to give an answer.
Of course, he’s let the proverbial cat out of the bag now and there is no going back. Emily Thornberry, in what looked like her improvising and declaring Labour policy without having agreed it with Corbyn first, basically said that not only would Remain be on the ballot but that both she and Corbyn would campaign for Remain together.
Corbyn’s long juggling act of keeping Leavers on board is finished, whatever he does now. He’s thrown his lot in with the Remainers, whether he likes it or not. Had he announced that Labour was going to support a People’s Vote wholeheartedly and with no reservations right before or even immediately after the Labour split was announced, he could have got a lot of credit from left-wing pro-EU types. Now, it looks like he was pressured into it by the split (meaning they will get credit for having caused the change of policy within Labour to happen) and that he’s being pulled along for the ride unwillingly. If the People’s Vote happens, he’s going to have to very begrudgingly campaign for a Remain he almost certainly doesn’t want to see happen, while other major figures of the Left outflank him with their “I bleed blue and gold stars” rhetoric. “I give it a seven out of ten” isn’t going to cut it for Corbyn this time round.