John McDonnell was on the Today programme this morning, discussing Labour’s position on Brexit. Why he agreed to do this is unknown (Diane Abbott, showing her much greater political nous, steered clear of both the vote and the aftermath), but there he was, trying to make sense of Labour’s position on Brexit. He, like everyone in his party’s frontbench before him, failed miserably in this task.
His basic position was the same one being peddled by the Labour leadership for weeks now: that Labour would vote through the Article 50 Bill because to do anything else would be undemocratic, but would table amendments to the Bill to protect “all those benefits we got from the EU we want to preserve”. I am now at a point where I genuinely cannot figure out if Corbyn and his inner circle are being incredibly thick or whether they are just playing games. Surely they must have realised that whipping the party to vote for the Bill regardless, and furthermore to vote through a paltry programme motion that would leave almost no time for debate on these amendments John McDonnell supposedly think are so important, would mean that the Bill sailed through the Commons with no amendment to it at all. There is no pressure on May to bend to any alteration whatsoever here – in fact, even if there was large Tory backbench support for an amendment, the number of Labour MPs who would vote the Bill through either way would be enough for the prime minister to get it through the House regardless.
As usual, Theresa May’s opposition worries mostly come from within her own party, as some backbenchers have threatened to vote against the Bill should the white paper not provide enough scrutiny from parliament over the leaving process. Let me repeat this: the Labour Party are currently doing nothing whatsoever to shape the Brexit process in any way whatsoever, whatever their spokespeople are saying.
If Corbyn had said a few weeks ago, you know what, I campaigned to Remain for many reasons but now that we’re leaving, I think it’s the right thing to do, so we’ll be voting to trigger Article 50 with gusto, that would have made some political sense. Labour have 149 seats with Leave majorities and thus want to seem Brexity – if that’s the priority, go for it. But instead they keep muddling along, saying they will be engaging in “hand-to-hand” combat with the Tories on this, but when push comes to shove simply lying down and going along with whatever is proposed.
McDonnell even desperately tried to take aim at the Lib Dems, saying that they had a rebellion of their own on the Bill. Yes, John, they whipped through a vote against the Bill and two MPs abstained, not even voted for the ayes. Almost three-quarters of the PLP voted for the Bill. I realise Labour’s position on this is confusing, but surely it hasn’t gone so far that John McDonnell can’t tell the difference between the aye and the no lobby any longer. Who knows, perhaps it really has gone that far.