Last night, the House of Lords inflicted the final bunch of defeats on the government in relation to the EU Withdrawal Bill, bringing the total to 13. The most notable amongst them was an amendment that, if passed when the Bill returns to the Commons, would force the government to try and keep the UK in the EEA post-Brexit. This would affect the government’s negotiations with the EU a lot, to put it mildly.
But it was worse for Corbyn. One, because he whipped the Labour Lords to vote against the amendment only to see a whopping 83 of them rebel and vote for it. If all he had was a whipping problem in the Lords though, it wouldn’t be quite so catastrophic for the Labour leader; the problem he faces which is much, much bigger is the horrible choice the amendment passing in the Lords now confronts him with.
Corbyn has three choices, all of them terrible.
- He whips his MPs to vote for the EEA amendment when it returns to the Commons. The chief advantages to this are that it throws the Conservative Party into potential turmoil, makes a general election in the coming months much more likely, and anoints him St Jeremy of Remainer parish for real. But the problems with taking this road are multiple and potentially existentially perilous. If the EEA amendment passes and we remain in the single market, the Tories can lay all of the blame for this at Labour’s door and claim that they were actually headed for an amazing outcome which would have resulted in every Briton getting a free lobster every day for the rest of time from Brussels had it not been scuppered by Corbyn and co. The potential for the Tories to really hoover up Labour Leave voters in the wake of this could destroy the Labour Party at the next general election.
- He whips his MPs to vote against the EEA amendment. This is oddly less risky than option 1, but if it goes badly for Corbyn it could be lights out for the Labour Party for a generation. So far, his Remainery base has forgiven him his Brexity tendencies in the House, convincing themselves that Corbyn is “playing the long game”. Voting for the Tories on this one might very well be a step too far for a lot of them – how many being the key question. The 2018 locals already showed us what Remainers turning against Labour can mean electorally; option 2 might cement that in a way that could be undoable.
- He takes the easy way out and tells his MPs to vote “as their consciences tell them”, i.e. make it a free vote. This would be in keeping with Labour’s “Brexity but not overly so” approach to the issue that has served them well up until now. Yet this has massive risks attached to it as well. One, it makes Corbyn look incredibly weak. Two, it could alienate both Remainers and Leavers at the same time, meaning he suffers from both ends of the spectrum. Worse, if the EEA amendment managed to pass anyhow, he gets all the downsides of option 1 thrown at his door as well.