Labour demanded a Brexit White Paper as a desperate attempt to unite the party – and then the PM went and shot that fox

Labour demanded a Brexit White Paper as a desperate attempt to unite the party – and then the PM went and shot that fox

If Theresa May hadn’t wanted to shoot Jeremy Corbyn’s fox and leave him floundering at the dispatch box just for the hell of it, would she have announced a Brexit White Paper at Prime Minister’s Questions?

As things stand, Labour will paint the Prime Minister’s announcement as a major victory. The truth is that May didn’t just shoot Corbyn’s fox – she throttled the only thing that has come even close to uniting the Labour Party on the issue of the EU.

On the face of it, Labour’s demand that the Government publish a White Paper before introducing legislation seeking Parliament’s authority to press ahead with Article 50 was an entirely reasonable one.

We face the biggest constitutional and economic shake-up in most of our lifetimes, changes that will have consequences far beyond our own shores and even of Europe’s. Naturally there needs to be the widest and deepest possible debate and consultation before Ministers get the go-ahead.

But even the briefest of analyses will reveal the real reasons for the demand, which were led by the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry.

Labour is in a mess, and not just because of the current leadership. The vast majority of Labour MPs supported the Remain campaign last year; some of them even did so enthusiastically. For Labour, the most obvious and immediate consequence of Leave’s unexpected victory was a challenge to the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, whose enthusiasm for Remain was lacklustre at best and entirely at odds with numerous hostile views he had expressed about the EU in the previous three decades.

But when the dust settled on that particular game of windmill tilting, the party had to find some way forward on Brexit. From a position in which they never expected to find themselves, they tried and failed to develop a coherent, united course. Up to a quarter of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) intend to vote against Article 50 in defiance of the majority of British voters (and, in some cases, against the wishes of a majority of their own voters). Others seem reluctantly prepared to support the Government, despite their misgivings about leaving the single market. And even among this group, there is a division between those who support and oppose freedom of movement, a non-negotiable obligation of single market membership.

And then there’s Jeremy himself, eagerly reconciled to Britain leaving the EU but fully supportive of maintaining freedom of movement, the least popular part of EU membership among Labour voters.

It’s hardly surprising that Thornberry and Corbyn were desperate to find something – anything – that would unite their party on this most convoluted and confusing of issues. And in their demand for a White Paper they found it. Briefly.

By focusing on a seemingly reasonable demand, Labour hoped to portray itself as the sensible, non-dogmatic element in the Brexit debate: respecting the wishes of the people, yet holding the government to account; avoiding the shrill language of the dyed-in-the-wool Remainers, but offering caution.

But its real motivation is that this was something the entire Parliamentary party could get behind. And in the absence of any other uniting factors, they hoped to cling on for dear life for as long as they could.

But what do they do now that May has called their bluff?

She could easily have made the argument that no such White Paper was necessary; after all, there’s already been the largest and most comprehensive “public consultation” possible – the referendum. As for the detail that could be included in such a publication, surely this would amount to nothing more than the Government’s starting point for negotiation with our soon-to-be-former EU partners.

Now that one rallying point has been dispensed with, Labour’s attention will turn to its next tactic: it intends to press – through amendments to the Government’s Article 50 Bill – for the option of rejecting whatever deal ministers negotiate and sending them back to Brussels for a do-over. Again, this seems reasonable at first, but is entirely aimed at uniting a disunited party and putting off the day when they have to face their electors and tell them they voted against their wishes.

It’s unlikely that Mrs May will be as compromising on this point as she has been on the White Paper, whatever that means for Labour Party unity.