Illustration: Steve Bell (the Guardian)
It should have been an open goal for Labour: the evasion and waffle emanating from May and her Brexit teame has become increasingly threadbare, failing to convince even her own side, or to obscure the obvious fact that the Government has no coherent plan whatsoever, beyond pandering to the racists and nationalists who drove the Leave campaign and bay from the Tory backbenches.
Labour’s Commons motion read: “That this House recognises that leaving the EU is the defining issue facing the UK; believes that there should be a full and transparent debate on the Government’s plan for leaving the EU; and calls on the Prime Minister to ensure that this House is able properly to scrutinise that plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked.”
Excellent! Except that, in advance of the debate Labour let it be known that they accepted that the government should not have to disclose anything that might ‘undermine’ its negotiations with the EU, thus accepting the May/Brexiteers’ premise that the UK is dealing with enemies.
This fatal concession provided May with her escape route in the face of a backbench revolt, and the Government tabled the following amendment that Labour cravenly agreed to support:
“ … and believes that the process should be undertaken in such a way that respects the decision of the people of the UK when they voted to leave the EU on 23 June and does not undermine the negotiating position of the Government as negotiations are entered into which will take place after Article 50 has been triggered”.
This commits Labour to backing the Government’s exit plan (ie to serve Article 50 by the end of March 2017) and commits the Tories to virtually nothing, beyond a continuation of their meaningless waffle about “the best deal for Britain”, etc, etc. No wonder the Brexiteers and their nativist press chorus are crowing with glee.
The BBC’s Laura Kounssberg hits the nail on the head here:
“Accepting the amendment does not mean they have promised to do anything in particular.
“Number 10 sources say they have not committed to publishing anything specific – a Green Paper, a White Paper, or frankly, even Theresa May’s shopping list.
“They say she has always said she would update the Commons and the public, as and when it was possible, without damaging her negotiating strategy.
“They also have not given any promise on when they might publish whatever that is. And in theory, sources point to the fact that all the public comments the prime minister has made so far on Brexit have been “published”, as in , she uttered the words, and then they appeared in the newspapers, online or on the TV or radio”.
This blunder on the part of Labour does not just flow from tactical ineptitude: it’s the result of a profound political weakness on the part of the present Labour leadership as demonstrated by Corbyn’s low-key role during the referendum and John McDonnell’s dreadful statement last month, promising not to obstruct Bexit.