In the real world, UK business is tearing its hair out not knowing what on earth Brexit is going to look like. The EU warns its manufacturers about the dangers of sourcing parts from UK firms if the UK leaves the Customs Union, as Theresa May intends. Meanwhile the UK cabinet continues its arguments about which plan to choose out of two the EU has already rejected. And Remain twitter talked about Corbyn betrayal. While May is definitely in fantasy land, Remain twitter was also a little behind reality.
The Lord’s EEA amendment presented a great opportunity. But this opportunity died at a meeting of the PLP shortly after it was passed by the Lords. There are a significant number of Labour MPs who voted to Remain but who subsequently feel that some notice should be taken of those who voted to Leave. What this means specifically is that in the Brexit negotiations some attempt should be made to end or modify Freedom of Movement (FoM). Those MPs combined with a few Lexiters - Polly Toynbee thinks there are 60 odd - would have voted against the EEA amendment even if the leadership had backed it.
That, as they say, changed everything. There was no point in pro-EU Labour MPs putting a huge effort into changing Corbyn’s mind on the EEA amendment if it was going to fail anyway. All that Corbyn would have achieved if he had supported the amendment is to allow a distraction of Labour divisions on what hopefully will be a night of setbacks for May and Brexit. I think the Labour MPs who want to focus on immigration control are quite wrong to do so, but they cannot be ignored.
Voting down the EEA amendment alone would have sent a purely negative message to Labour’s overwhelmingly Remain supporting members and voters. So an additional amendment was put forward by Labour. Now this may have no chance of passing because ‘it comes from Corbyn’, but that tells us that the Tory rebels are also capable of putting party before country. It is vague, but it has to be so to keep the pro-immigration control Labour MPs on board. And I agree with Ian Dunt it is better to have than not.
As Ian says, it makes it more likely that Labour will vote against the final deal and that this vote is the crucial one if a referendum on the final deal is to become possible. I think some Remainers sometimes forget that the only way a referendum will happen is if parliament votes for it, and the only way that will happen is if Labour supports it because May will not. Finally the only way Corbyn will not be Labour leader when that decision comes is if he falls under a bus. So gradual pressure and persuasion is the name of the game. The more the Remain campaign resembles a get rid of Corbyn campaign, the more difficult it is for people within Labour to apply that pressure.
Unfortunately, press comment on anything to do with Labour increasingly resembles a pro or anti Corbyn debate. The fact that it was not common knowledge that there were a significant group of Labour members not attached to Corbyn who opposed EEA is quite understandable if you read the press comment at the time. Although that was the news at the PLP meeting, most reports just made it another Corbyn versus MPs story. That was what press coverage was like before the 2017 election, which helps explain Labour's dramatic increase in popularity during the election as voters saw for the first time what their policies were, and the media has now reverted back to this narrative.
In my experience these MPs that want to try to end FoM for the UK or at least modify it tend to come from strongly leave voting areas. It is easy to say that they are being unrealistic in their wish, because the four freedoms are indivisible for the EU, but they are after all only reflecting the views of their constituents that the UK should try. Although we may strongly suspect the EU will say FoM has to go with being in the Single Market, this is a question that Theresa May has yet to ask because ironically the Conservative Brexiters are not very interested in controlling immigration.
Let me stress that I am in no way supporting these MPs refusal to back the EEA amendment - I support FoM - just as I think the leadership's reluctance to do so for different reasons is misguided. But to overcome objections to EEA you first have to understand where they come from. The idea that if it wasn’t for Corbyn Labour would be solidly behind joining the EEA is not only wrong, but it risks associating the Remain cause with the constant stream of attacks on Corbyn that can be found in the media on an almost daily basis, which in turn dilutes the pressure from Remain on the leadership and anti-FoM MPs.