Richard North, 25/02/2018  

It really does come to something when we end up looking to Labour politicians for sense on Brexit.

But, after the extreme stupidity of the Tory "war cabinet", the nearest thing to a sensible resolution is coming from a group of 37 MPs, a gaggle of MEPs, council leaders, peers and trade unionists. They have signed a statement calling for continued participation in the Single Market.

Welcome though it is (even if it is a guarded welcome), this has been highlighted by the Observer today as a move which exposes Labour's divisions over Brexit and which will "infuriate" Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn, it seems, is preparing to announce a significant shift in policy that is expected to commit Labour to backing permanent membership of a customs union with the EU. And this, the Observer tells us, "will open a far clearer divide between Labour and the Tories over Brexit".

Clearly, the very last thing we want is for Brexit to become a party political football, although any inter-party squabbles may fade into insignificance if a Tory civil war takes off. But there is also the possibility of a cross-party alliance supporting the Single Market.

Should this ever come about, we could see Labour MPs joining forces with pro-EU Tories, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. Collectively, they have the potential to inflict damaging defeats on Theresa May in a series of Commons votes in the spring, as she tries to get her raft of Brexit-related legislation through the House.

However, signatories to the statement, co-ordinated by the Labour Campaign for the Single Market, are urging Corbyn to join in the campaign. With the help of the other opposition parties and break-away Tories, he could muster a parliamentary majority, forcing Mrs May's hand.

That is not to say that Corbyn is going to get an easy ride. His support for a post-Brexit customs union has been branded as "playing with fire" by the likes of Frank Field, Graham Stringer and Kate Hoey. They are cautioning their leader not to "renege" on the party's election promises, where the manifesto limited the party to "retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union".

Most likely, though, the refusniks are small in number. On the other hand, with the Conservative leader potentially blocked by the 62 ERG MPs, it is possible that only Corbyn could deliver a majority vote on Brexit. If he casts his lot in with the Single Market rebels, he could find himself dictating the Brexit agenda that would leave the "ultras" stranded.

Even now, some Tory MPs are pledged to support Labour on the customs union and the Sunday Times is recording that 15-20 Tories could end up backing Corbyn. There is even a possibility that Sinn Fein's six MPs could take their seats to support the move.

And although the Labour direction of travel is far from ideal – with continued EEA membership being promoted as an end state, it is immeasurably better than anything the Conservatives have to offer, with the merit of actually being deliverable.

The MPs, which include Stephen Kinnock (alongside his father, now Lord Neil Kinnock) and Heidi Alexander, Alison McGovern and Chuka Umunna, have certainly got the point about Northern Ireland and see their stance as the only way of avoiding a hard border with the Irish Republic.

The timing here is impeccable as the Commission is expected on Wednesday to come up with its proposal for a legal agreement on the Irish border, which will almost certainly put Mrs May on the spot. If Labour plays its cards right (the first time it will have done so on Brexit), it could wrest the initiative from the Tories.

Another indication of this comes from the Tories themselves, with David Lidington whingeing that the SNP risks damaging the country's ability to strike trade deals by demanding a series of powers currently held by Brussels.

This refers to an attempt by Nicola Sturgeon's devolved government to seize control of key trade powers, resulting in a "disjointed" economy and a weakened UK. With the Welsh government also trying to get in on the act, Lidington has his hands full keeping them on-side.

Once again, that gives Corbyn a potential bargaining point, especially with Sturgeon, who has previously supported the idea of continued EEA participation. A strong commitment to the Single Market could unite the opposition parties in a way that support for a customs union would not.

It is, of course, intensely disappointing that politicians are still hung up on the idea of a customs union, with many undoubtedly confusing it with customs cooperation – which will be needed in any event. With provision within the EEA agreement for the abolition of tariffs between parties – and for working together on customs issues – the customs union is a complete irrelevance and an unnecessary distraction.

The confusion, sadly, does not even stop there. Not a few MPs quite evidently have difficulties coming to terms with the difference between Efta and the EEA, and by no means all of them realise that (ideally, if not essentially) we must rejoin Efta in order to stay in the EEA.

Furthermore, even some supporters of continued EEA participation believe it requires conceding freedom of movement, while there are any number of tedious drones imbued with the mantra about coming under the jurisdiction of the ECJ and being deprived of any say on new legislation.

A more complex area is participation in the Common Fisheries and Agriculture Policies. For historical reasons, all the current Efta states have chosen to stay outside these policy domains, but that does not mean that the UK will have to, if it chooses otherwise. There exists within the framework of the EEA Agreement provision for joint arrangements on either or both fisheries and agriculture, which could prove useful as an interim measure.

This illustrates the extraordinary flexibility of the EEA Agreement which could even be tailored to include a specific protocol on Irish cross-border cooperation.

It is a measure thus of the paucity of the current debate that positive options are not being explored, while MPs and the commentariat generally are bogged down on the basics, seemingly unable to progress.

One can only hope that the Commission's draft legal agreement on Wednesday will prove the catalyst, forcing the Tories to take a more realistic approach to the negotiations. But, at least, if they remain wedded to the absurdities offered by the "war cabinet", there is some glimmer of hope that Labour could pick up the baton and run with it.

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