Corbyn sacks three frontbenchers after Single Market vote” was the top story on The Guardian’s website early this morning. The three in question – Slaughter, West and Cadbury – were sacked, while a fourth, Daniel Zeichner, resigned.

Like anything to do with Brexit there has been a lot more heat than light about this issue. So I am going to try to explain what happened using the actual texts available.

The issue that caused the sacking was an amendment to the Queen’s Speech proposed by Chuka Umunna and 66 others, and backed by 101 MPs (full list of names here) – Amendment (g) that can be found towards the bottom here – the amendment text is this (my emphasis):

but respectfully regret that the Gracious Speech does not rule out withdrawal from the EU without a deal, guarantee a Parliamentary vote on any final outcome to negotiations, set out transitional arrangements to maintain jobs, trade and certainty for business, set out proposals to remain within the Customs Union and Single Market, set out clear measures to respect the competencies of the devolved administrations, and include clear protections for EU nationals living in the UK now, including retaining their right to remain in the UK, and reciprocal rights for UK citizens.

The Labour leadership proposed its own amendment – Amendment (i) – that can be found even lower down here. It covers things other than the EU, but the EU part is this (again my emphasis):

recognise that no deal on Brexit is the very worst outcome and therefore call on the Government to negotiate an outcome that prioritises jobs and the economy, delivers the exact same benefits the UK has as a member of the Single Market and the Customs Union, ensures that there is no weakening of cooperation in security and policing, and maintains the existing rights of EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU

The main argument made against those who backed Umunna’s amendment – a case made by John Prescott for example – is that the amendment goes against the party’s manifesto. So what did the manifesto say about these issues? Full PDF of the manifesto here, EU part on page 24, and relevant text (my emphasis):

We will […] build a close new relationship with the EU […] and give a meaningful role to Parliament throughout negotiations. […] We will scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining
the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union. […] Labour recognises that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ is the worst possible deal for Britain and that it would do
damage to our economy and trade. We will reject ‘no deal’ as a viable option and if needs be negotiate transitional arrangements to avoid a ‘cliff-edge’ for the economy.

Last but not least, what did the Queen’s Speech say about any of this? The full text is here, and this is the closest there is (no deal Brexit, and Single Market and Customs Union, are not mentioned by name):

My government’s priority is to secure the best possible deal as the country leaves the European Union. […] My government will seek to maintain a deep and special partnership with European allies and to forge new trading relationships across the globe. New bills on trade and customs will help to implement an independent trade policy, and support will be given to help British businesses export to markets around the world.

So what happened?

Umunna’s Amendment (g) is marginally stronger in its wording than either the Labour leadership Amendment (i) or the Labour manifesto – it implies that leaving the EU without a deal must be ruled out rather than be seen as highly undesirable, and proposals be “laid out” to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union. Note laid out – it is not even categoric in saying that the UK must remain in the Single Market and Customs Union, just that proposals to do so need to be set out.

The Labour leadership’s Amendment (i) is also stronger than the Labour Party’s manifesto – it promises “the exact same benefits” of the Single Market and Customs Union, while the manifesto says “strong emphasis on retaining the benefits“. That rather renders Prescott’s argument about respecting the manifesto void.

Furthermore “the exact same benefits […] of the Customs Union” is actually impossible, unless you are in the Customs Union. Because the moment you are out of it, customs checks of some shape or form are going to be required, and someone has to pay those costs. So the addition of the word “exact” actually pushes this text rather closer to Umunna’s text than it is to the manifesto text.

Also note that this is not just semantics – there is a difference between being in the Single Market and Customs Union, and having access too / benefits of / relationship with the Single Market and Customs Union. Plus we know what being in the Single Market entails (Norway is not in the EU but is in it) and being in the Customs Union entails (Turkey is in it and not in the EU). We do not know what, in practice, “retaining the benefits” of either actually means. The official Labour position remains studiously ambiguous, and with the clock ticking on the 2 year Article 50 period that has to end sometime.

Last but not least, both Umunna’s amendment and the Labour leadership amendment are a lot closer to the manifesto text than they are to the Queen’s Speech in its original form. But – as rebel front bencher Cadbury says towards the bottom here – she defied the whip and hence has to go.

That then leads us to the question: why was this whipped so strongly? Prior to the 8th June General Election, the Labour Party had an uneasy truce on these issues, where pro- and anti-Single Market views coexisted in the party, and because Corbyn’s side of the party drafted the manifesto that’s why that text ended up that way.

Why then make a fuss like this?

Some – like Dan Davies – point the finger at Umunna for bringing this into the open too quickly after the election, saying it is a tactical error. Others – like Rupert Myers – are critical of Corbyn for coming down so harshly. Perhaps doing better than expected on 8th June means Corbyn thinks he has more leverage now? An interesting debate also started about the extent to which Corbyn could indeed be for turning towards soft Brexit – with Ian Dunt and Mark Wallace pointing out this was obviously rubbish, but A C Grayling underlining how Corbyn has let down his voters, a majority of whom backed Remain (despite what Labour’s manifesto said).

I’m not going to really try to take a side here on who was more right or more wrong, tactically. At least we better know what Umunna’s amendment practically meant that the Labour leadership’s one does. But all of this shows that Labour’s Brexit position is all over the place, with no sign of the tensions in the party abating. It was inevitable a fight like this was going to happen – it’s just a surprise it was so soon after the election. I suppose Labour’s only solace is that the Tories are even more riven by division on this.

[UPDATE 1.7.17, 1900]
A sharp eyed Twitter nerd – @dang65 – has pointed me towards a 24 January 2017 parliament debate (Hansard here), where none other than David Davis says “the idea of a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have” – that bears a rather close resemblance to the Corbyn Amendment (i) above!

Meanwhile George Peretz QC highlights the problem with Keir Starmer’s words late last night in the Mirror. Starmer says “Hard Brexit is off the table” and that the Customs Union should certainly be on the table in negotiations – sounding rather close to the line in Umunna’s amendment! Sadly the whole text of his interview does not seem to be available, but a quote in the piece does say “now people are coming towards our position” – problem is that his words make it even less clear what that position is! Maybe this is simply a fudge cake Labour is proposing to have and to eat?

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