Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 1 July 2017

A completely pointless amendment

There was a lot of indignation yesterday from committed Remainers about Corbyn sacking those who supported the Chuka Umunna amendment on the Single Market. I’m a committed Remainer, but I couldn’t see what the point of the amendment was. That is because we are almost certain to leave the EU still in the Single Market.

In March I wrote that the outline of the Brexit deal was fairly clear. Crucially, there would be a longish (many years) transitional arrangement to enable a bespoke trade deal to be negotiated. During this period we would preserve our position in the customs union and Single Market (and pay money to the EU to do so). The UK side may dress this up as something a little different, if they have the wit and energy to do so and if the EU lets them, but to all intents and purposes that means nothing changes on the trade side for some time. That conclusion didn’t require any great powers of foresight at the time, but simply followed from the length of time it takes to negotiate bespoke trade deals (see, for example, Alasdair Smith here).

My only uncertainty back in March was whether May would choose (or be forced to choose) No Deal. With the election giving more power to soft Brexit elements among the Conservatives (e.g. Hammond), I think No Deal is now very unlikely because parliament will vote it down. As a result, towards the end of 2018 we will know how much we have to pay in order to formally leave the EU, but things will otherwise stay pretty much as they are now.

What about a change in Prime Minister and an election? Unless something turns up (a big if), I suspect we will see neither before the end of 2018. The least important reason for this is May would rather be known as the PM who took us out of the EU than the PM who threw away certain victory in GE2017. One reason she is unlikely to be challenged over the next year and a half is that delaying the negotiations once again (this time for a leadership contest) just looks awful. Both ex Tory Remainers and Brexiteers are nervous of how a leadership election might evolve. If May is prepared to sacrifice her two lieutenants, she will also sacrifice the foolish red lines she created for the EU negotiations.

No Conservative contest of course means no election. Once again, unless something turns up, the Conservatives will want to leave an election for as long as possible in the hope that their popularity improves. Labour will be hoping that it wins that election, so it will be in charge of the trade negotiations designed to create a bespoke trade deal, but whoever is in charge it is difficult to see any enthusiasm for replacing the Single Market.

On the Conservative side the idea that we should leave the customs union because it will enable us to negotiate lots of trade deals of our own will be increasingly recognised as the nonsense that it is. It will also be obvious that any bespoke trade deal will require the same pooling of sovereignty as the Single Market. Brexiteers never had any real interest in ending freedom of movement: that was a ploy to get a Brexit vote. If Labour were in charge they would quickly find out that the Single Market did not prevent them doing most of what they want to do, and that there were easier ways of managing free movement. The priority would be repairing the public services, a task not helped by reducing immigration and weakening our trade position, so the bespoke trade deal will get kicked into the long grass.

Of course that means ending up with a situation where nothing has changed except that the UK will have paid the EU to no longer have any influence on the rules of the Single Market it is still part of. All that time and effort for a truly epic fail. The best hope for Remainers is that this realisation will dawn on enough Conservative MPs to embolden them to demand a second referendum. (This has always been the best strategy for Remainers: to work the Condorcet paradox that was at the heart of the referendum result.) In these circumstances it would be an extraordinary act of self harm if Labour did not join them in voting for a referendum. They would instantly be on the wrong side of the triangulation which served them so well in GE2017, which would put their popularity at serious risk.

Given all this, what was the point in the amendment to the Queen’s speech saying we should stay in the Single Market, given that the occasion meant that no Tory MPs could vote for it, and we will probably be staying in the Single Market anyway? (Jonn Elledge comes to similar conclusions by a different route.) When you are a leader of the opposition who has surprised himself by completely wrong footing the pundits through a combination of a manifesto that increases the size of the state and triangulation on Brexit, wouldn’t you be annoyed by such pointless and potentially harmful distractions? 


  1. Isn't it perhaps a reflection of Corbyn's unwillingness to clearly enunciate Labour's position? If Umunna were sure of Labour's position, he surely wouldn't have made the proposal. Being all things to all men means that Brexiting Labour MPs I've spoken to are as confident of leaving the single market (for all the old 1970s reasons) as Remainers are that Labour would never leave. I hope I'm wrong, but I suspect that absolutely nothing has changed about Corbyn and co's position on the EU other than the need to dress it up as opposition to any deal the present government makes.

  2. A very perceptive post. I think many, like myself, will have noted that the result of the GE makes May vulnerable on votes where a few Tories can be peeled off, but have missed that this also applies to a No Deal outcome. It makes their bluster on this outcome even more stupid that it was previously, as the EU will have undoubtedly noticed.

  3. Prediction markets (Betfair and Smarkets) suggest the UK will probably (64%) still be in the EU just after deadline day in March 2019. Betfair also suggests a second referendum is unlikely (25%). So it looks like the market's three most likely scenarios are very roughly:
    1. Something will delay or prevent the exit, without a second referendum (39%)
    2. We will exit on schedule (36%)
    3. A second referendum will occur and cause us to stay in or delay exit(25%)

    In addition Mrs May is heavily odds on to resign before Brexit happens.

  4. I despair at Andy Slaughter, dscribed on the BBC as 'MP for Hammersmith, having been in Parliament since 2005. In June 2016 he quit as shadow justice minister, saying he did not believe Mr Corbyn was "the best person to maximise support in the country". But he returned as a shadow housing minister in October that same year - until being sacked.'

    I watched him this week talking about the Grenfell disaster, and then he decides effectively to quit on the issue of Europe days later.

    I also believe it the case that most of the new Tory MPs elected last month were aligned to Remain in 2016, so May did not get firm support from her own side with this new intake.

  5. I voted Labour and I'm delighted the amendment was put down yesterday. If there's not going to be lots of Labour MPs fighting for the Single Market, I'll support the Lib Dems or Plaid Cymru. Who knows, I might get the habit and stick with them.

  6. So we're staying in the Single Market anyway, but people who vote to that effect get sacked from the frontbench for being right?

    Nobody cares what the Minister for Paperclips (as these 4 were) votes for. It didn't have to be whipped at all.

  7. You have missed the 'point' of this pointless amendment; it was all about internal Labour party politics not the external situation. In the judgement of the remaining Red Tories/Parliamentary Labour Party/Blairites whichever label you are comfortable with, sufficient time had elapsed since the General Election to return to their real work of regaining control of the party.
    It was, in this sense as well, a pointless and destructive action.

    1. Not everything is about Jeremy Corbyn and seizing control of the Labour Party. Believe it or not, there are backbench MPs willing to take a stand on issues they believe in (apparently Corbyn used to be one of them).

  8. "That is because we are almost certain to leave the EU still in the Single Market."

    I think there may be a typo somewhere in that statement.

    I come to the same conclusion via a slightly different route - a few months back when Corbyn was seen as soft on immigration, Umunna stated that while he valued the SM, he would get rid of it if it allowed control over FoM.

    Since SM membership is unlikely not to include FoM, this amounts to the same 'have cake and eat it' garbage that Boris and others trotted out.

    No doubt if and when we do stay in the SM, Umunna will claim to have been magically prescient, while conveniently forgetting his earlier remarks.

  9. I completely agree. I wonder whether this amendment was less to do with brexit and more related to signals that the Blairites (who have largely been silent since the GE) are planning more nonsense to wrest back power and control from the left of the party.

  10. Simon... could I perhaps persuade you to stop referring to the Internal market as the "single market" for the sake of clarity? I accept that all Brit politicians do the same buts its fundamentally wrong from an EU law stand point. the TFEU refers to the internal market. Why? because the term single market had already been coined for the EFTA convention ,see clause 2. They are different, and must be treated as such from a legal point of view. Cap in hand Sir I hope you will take my point without feeling offended...I also object to the term customs union simply because it gives the impression of a separate entity which does not exist in law. the TFEU refers to freedom of movement consisting of the four freedoms. Not a customs union. the freedoms are inseparable.You cannot mix and match drop one keep the others.
    Many thanks..
    David Smith

  11. You make a persuasive case that Britain will remain in the single market and customs union for the foreseeable future, and that if this is the case the amendment was pointless. But given that May seems not to have changed her rhetoric at all post-election, I can absolutely understand why Labour MPs may not be at all convinced that this will be the case, and feel they still have to pressure the government and to keep the issue in the public consciousness, rather than allowing it to be a settled fact that the UK will leave the single market and customs union. And at least it allows those people who voted Labour but who have been disheartened by Corbyn and co's continued Hard Brexit stance that there are Labour MPs on their side.

  12. As per AllanW above, the amendment was mainly about flag waving by those who fear that they have been consigned to the dustbin of history by Labour's success in the GE.

    It was also pointless because there was no political strategy behind it, apart from flag waving. What was it meant to achieve? It's not even principled, as chris e notes, as Umunna has been prepared to ditch the single market for less FoM. And it's not as though the Labour Right have a thought out position. Are they for or against FoM? Do they want their cake and eat it?

  13. 'no Conservative contest means no [general] election.' And having a Conservative contest means no election either. They are not going to call one before they have to and an effective majority of 14 protects than against a no confidence vote. The view that a new PM means a general election seems to be coming largely from Mrs May's supporters, for obvious reasons.

  14. David Davis has repeated several times that in March 2019 we will leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. I suspect this isn't negotiation posturing but that he truly believes it.


Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.