By Owen Jones
As Tuesday’s votes showed, Labour doesn’t have the numbers to prevail. The Tories are the sole authors of this pantomime
This week’s parliamentary votes on Brexit should mark the death of a delusion. This may seem an odd argument: parliament has just voted for an amendment demanding an alternative to the backstop, which has been repeatedly ruled out by the EU. Tory MPs voted for what they know is impossible. David Lidington, the prime minister’s number two, who three weeks ago denounced “fantasies about magical, alternative deals”, voted for what he knows is impossible. Theresa May, who has repeatedly declared that no alternative to her deal exists and then ludicrously whipped her MPs to vote against that deal, voted for what she knows is impossible. The DUP, which at least has the excuse of being stranded in the 17th century, voted for what it knows is impossible. The Tory party is subjecting the country to a pantomime, acting out a script it knows bears no relation to reality, and is prolonging Britain’s turmoil and our international humiliation, all for the sake of its own partisan interests.
No, the delusion that died on Tuesday night was the idea that Labour has any meaningful say over the substance of Brexit at all. Labour put forward an amendment to strike out no deal, and to provide the option of a second referendum. It backed Yvette Cooper’s amendment to extend article 50 by a mere three months and Dominic Grieve’s amendment to allow consultative votes on alternatives to May’s Brexit plan. All three of the amendments were voted down in parliament. The reason for this is that the Tories have a parliamentary majority, courtesy of the DUP, and Tory MPs – wherever they stand on the Brexit divide – prioritise stopping a party split over the nation’s interests. Along with their ideological obsession with austerity, this is the proximate cause of Britain’s crisis. This should be a statement of the obvious, but sometimes to state the obvious is a revolutionary act.
And yet, for some, an opposition party with only a minority of parliamentary seats shares responsibility. Ire is directed at Labour because 14 rebels voted against Cooper’s amendment. For some reason, the leadership is to blame for just over a dozen of its backbenchers defying instructions and rebelling. There really does need to be more consistency in the attack lines directed at Jeremy Corbyn. Is he an authoritarian leader who has subjected the Labour party to a Stalinist reign of terror, leaving MPs in fear of local party members democratically choosing to select another candidate? Or has he imposed insufficient discipline on his MPs? Which is it? As it happens, it has been repeatedly reported that a key reason many rightwing Labour MPs have not declared for May’s deal is because of pressure from Momentum and the threat of deselection. Are Corbyn’s critics now demanding that this pressure should be intensified?
If people are angry about the Brexit mess – which they really should be – that fury should be directed at the decisions of the Tory government, decisions voted for and endorsed by virtually every single Tory MP. Let’s look at some so-called Tory rebels. When Jo Johnson resigned from the government over Brexit, he was hailed as a hero of the remain cause and cheered at a People’s Vote rally, where he was interviewed by national treasure Gary Lineker. Yesterday , Johnson voted against the Cooper amendment and against Tory Caroline Spelman’s non-binding amendment to stop a no deal, and abstained on Grieve.
Or take Grieve himself, who last year tabled an amendment on a meaningful vote and then voted against it. Or Nicky Morgan, who colluded with Jacob Rees-Mogg to hammer out an unworkable “compromise” that merely makes no deal more likely. Or Anna Soubry, who voted against the right of EU citizens to remain, and declared that she would choose Britain leaving the EU under a Tory government over remaining under a Corbyn government. Time after time, Tory “rebels” have proved themselves charlatan and dupes. Why, then, do some remainers have limitless gullibility when it comes to Tory “rebels” but equally bottomless incredulity when it comes to Labour’s motives?
Ah, but Labour’s failure to declare for a second referendum is to blame! Let me put this gently. If parliament cannot even support extending article 50 for three months, with the support of Labour, the numbers are not only not there for another vote, they are not even close: 90% of Tory MPs do not want another referendum. Dozens of Labour MPs in leave-voting constituencies campaigned in the 2017 general election with a promise that they would not stop Brexit.
Take Yvette Cooper, who distributed leaflets pledging that she would “not vote to block Brexit”. We are right to condemn Brexiteers for making promises they could not keep during the referendum campaign. But why then demand Labour MPs break their own promises? If Corbyn ordered his MPs to vote for a second referendum, a big chunk of his parliamentary party would rebel, and it would not pass. People’s Vote campaigners have been demanding that Labour commit to a position that would provoke mass resignations from the party’s frontbench, a huge parliamentary rebellion, anger its leave voters, and then still get voted down. For some, the motive is a passionate commitment to a legitimate cause. For others, such as Chuka Umunna, it’s about driving a wedge between Labour’s leadership and its members and voters so that a new “centrist” party can be founded.
That doesn’t mean Labour should be absolved of criticism. It has failed to forcefully make the case for immigration, even though key leadership figures – Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, and John McDonnell – have committed their political lives to pro-migrant and refugee campaigns. Labour nearly abstained on the Tories’ immigration bill on Monday, which would have been scandalous. But to claim that Labour shares the responsibility for Brexit turmoil is completely unfounded. If this week’s parliamentary votes underline anything, it is this: Tory rule is the source of our nation’s ills, and until it is ended our country is damned.
•Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist