22 Feb 2019

As the most tribal of Labour MPs quits – what next for Britain’s divided parties?

For many years Ian Austin was seen by Tory opponents as just about the most tribal Labour politician on the planet. He would hurl abuse at Conservative opponents, never drop the party battle for a moment of non-political civility. It was visceral for him.

Today he finds himself walking out of the tribe.

He has issued an angry statement about the rampant anti-Semitism he sees in the Labour Party focusing in particular on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership which he says has made that possible. Mr Corbyn has responded with clipped and cool language regretting his decision and pointing out that Ian Austin was re-elected in 2017 on Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto.

Mr Austin isn’t having anything to do with The Independent Group (TIG) of MPs, though some TIG MPs themselves have rushed to endorse his judgement on the Labour Party they left in recent days.

The fact Ian Austin doesn’t feel like jumping into their club points to just one of the challenges they face. Their cast list right now is exclusively pro-Second Referendum and Ian Austin thinks that would be a disaster. He is widely expected to back Theresa May’s deal when it comes back to the Commons.

When might he get that opportunity?

Not next week, according to government sources.

Next week, on Wednesday, we will probably have another neutral’ish government motion to look at (not yet written) and a series of amendments. One of those amendments, Cooper/Letwin, is giving the government an almighty headache still. Ministers and PPSs are threatening to vote for it against the government whip. The government is trying to work out a form of words that heads them off.

Cooper/Letwin gives the government until 13th March to get its deal approved or MPs will try to force the government to ask the EU for a delay in Article 50. There’s no guarantee this constitutional innovation would work. The backbench legislation required might not get through Parliament ahead of March 29th, Brexit date. No-one can be sure what the EU27 would say in response to the government asking (at gunpoint) for a delay to A50.

No. 10 is panicked that 20 or so ministers and PPSs will defy the whip and vote for Cooper/Letwin next week potentially forcing the PM to sack the lot of them. It’s a hideously destabilising prospect for the PM.

A letter from the 100-strong Brexit Support Group which popped up (can’t have been a great surprise to the authors) in the Telegraph today warns that some (it’s thought about two to three dozen) of their own gang (seen as Theresa May loyalists determined to see her deal get passed) might back the Cooper/Letwin amendment. At first glance that adds to Theresa May’s headache but if it means the 20 or so people on the government payroll tempted to vote for it don’t have to defy the whip and risk a mass sacking then maybe Theresa May could live with it or even benefit from it.

It would give her until March 13th to bring her Meaningful Vote on the deal to the Commons for a second attempt. It would come with the added codicil and other adjustments plus a legal opinion from the Attorney General saying it is truly temporary and can’t be forever. With the clock ticking to the Cooper/Letwin 13th March “parliament takes control” moment, maybe that would be as good a moment as it gets for Theresa May to test the Brexit divorce deal again in the Commons?

One other amendment that is raising temperatures is the Kyle/Wilson Amendment. It offers up support for Theresa May’s deal in return for a promise of a referendum on that deal or remaining in the EU. Following a meeting of some Labour Shadow Cabinet members earlier in the week, John McDonnell and Sir Keir Starmer appear to be leaning in to that approach and in discussions with the Labour backbenchers who put it forward. Some in Labour high command are pretty horrified at the idea of voting for Theresa May’s deal (they think they’d cop half the blame for whatever followed) and then, into the bargain, reopening the whole referendum question putting the Labour leadership on the spot: does Jeremy Corbyn stand by the 2017 manifesto to implement Brexit (albeit his version of it) or does he back Remain? Either way, the leadership alienates a chunk of support.

The difference in tone between Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell on a Second Referendum is very striking. It echoes a difference in tone between the two towards Labour defectors and towards the issue of anti-Semitism as well. Some senior Labour figures think it goes to the heart of the question of whether the Corbyn Project needs to move on from the euphoria of the 2017 result and trim its ambitions to keep the Party together and viable.

That could mean bringing in faces from the backbenches. It could mean altering some policy positions. For some, it would require removing some of Jeremy Corbyn’s top advisers and maybe eventually Jeremy Corbyn himself. It is talk stirring in senior Labour ranks even as much else swirls in the Brexit storm.

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