Every Monday when parliament is in session, in the early evenings, the parliamentary Labour Party meets for a chat. These get togethers have been witness to some explosive moments over the past few years – moderate MPs leaving f-ing and blinding, sometimes leaving nuggets for the assorted hacks outside to chew over – but the meeting held last night may be one for the history books.
Corbyn and his inner circle, combined with Eurosceptic Labour MPs of a non-Corbyn flavour such as John Mann, combined to try and kill the idea of Labour voting for the Lords amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill which would keep the UK in the EEA post-Brexit. It now looks highly likely that Labour MPs will either be asked to abstain, or even possibly whipped to vote against the amendment.
This opens up several interesting possibilities. If abstention is called for, it will be notable to see how many Labour MPs defy this and vote for the amendment anyhow. If it is ten, this is no big deal for Corbyn; if its fifty, it starts to look a little worrying; if it is over a hundred, Corbyn could be in a tricky situation. This wouldn’t be like when moderates voted to intervene in Syria; here is an issue, perhaps the only major one, in which the moderates and the Labour membership are fully aligned. Voting for the amendment in numbers would highlight Coryn’s Euroscepticism to his core crowd to a degree he might find uncomfortable. At the very least, he’d have to be very careful about how he reacted to this rebellion.
Of course, the more interesting situation is if there are a lot of rebellions on the Tory side as well. If Labour abstained and a hundred PLP members voted for the amendment, it would take surprisingly few Tory MPs to carry it through. If that happened, we’d be in a whole different political world than the one we are now in, with both May and Corbyn in serious trouble all of a sudden. But alas, this is unlikely to happen.
When the amendment goes before the House, I expect the Labour frontbench to abstain and a small collection, perhaps thirty to forty Labour backbenchers, to vote for the amendment, and a handful, or even just Ken Clarke, to vote for it on the Tory side. It will thus be defeated easily. This will cause Labour to move down another level into the abyss – yet there seems to be infinite levels to this crisis on the Left, so that means little in the immediate term. But if I’m wrong and the amendment passes even with Labour having tried to force an abstention, get ready folks: the fireworks are on.
How does this change the general election calculations?
By which I mean, the main reason not to call a general election is the possibility of it letting Corbyn into number ten. But if the amendment only passes (possibly precipitating the election) because 40% of the Labour MPs defy their leader, then even in the event of the election returning Labour as the largest party, how could Corbyn claim to have the confidence of the House? Would those MPs back a Corbyn-government Queen’s Speech? If they did, how could they live with themselves?
(And that’s even before the question of whether they could become the largest party, with every single Labour candidate being repeatedly asked the question: ‘Will you back Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister?’)
[I suspect it will actually turn out as suggested, with the amendment being defeated. But it’s interesting to speculate.]
Paul W says
The major rupture that the Labour party needs to avoid is the one between the national party (as represented by PLP and the wider Labour party membership) and the party’s blue collar voting base in the provinces.
I agree with the thrust of your argument, as in the vote on the Single Market could cause serious problems for Corbyn.
I would like to add that it could also cause major problems for many Labour frontbenchers, whose constituencies and ideologies make them inclined to support staying in a Single Market. Clive Lewis would, for instance, be under pressure I’m sure from his constituents if he did not vote for the EEA. We may well see some resignations and sackings over this in Labour.