Regardless of the government’s undoubted problems over Brexit, the last few days have demonstrated that Labour also faces acute difficulties. The government’s defeat in the High Court last Thursday on the invocation of Article 50 has energised supporters of EU membership. For all the talk of constitutional procedures and parliamentary sovereignty, there can be little doubt that many “Remainers” hope to use the ruling as the basis for a war of attrition either to achieve a “soft Brexit” or possibly to avert Brexit altogether.
That might have been expected to embolden the Labour Party, all of whose leading figures campaigned for “Remain” in the referendum. In fact, Labour has once again wobbled on Article 50 and struggled to produce a coherent line.
The day after the referendum in June, Jeremy Corbyn seemingly demanded the immediate invocation of Article 50, only to back down a month later saying, “I may not have put that as well as I should have done.” Following the court case last week, he gave an interview to the Sunday Mirror, in which he set out four “Brexit bottom lines,” including full access to the Single Market, protection of workers’ rights, safeguards for consumers and the environment, and a promise that Britain will pick up the shortfall left by the loss of EU investment. Corbyn’s intervention was widely interpreted by the media to mean that, if the government failed to deliver on these areas, Labour would vote against invoking Article 50, possibly leading to an early election.
That position was “clarified” later on Sunday by Corbyn’s deputy, Tom Watson, who told BBC Radio Five that Labour wanted the government to be held accountable in parliament. But he added: “We’re not going to hold this up. The British people have spoken and Article 50 will be triggered when it comes to Westminster.” On Monday, the shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, echoed Watson’s position. In an article for the Guardian he wrote: “there is a mandate to leave [the EU] and Labour will not frustrate it by voting down Article 50. But there is no mandate for the terms upon which we exit, and the stakes are too high for the prime minister to decide this by herself.”
Labour’s confusion over Article 50 reflects…