The dynamics of whether or not the Prime Minister will get her deal through Parliament has meant all eyes have been on rebels, both leave and remain, in her own party.
However, what Labour decides to do may end up having a greater significance than events on the Conservative benches.
Following months of what has been described as ‘constructive ambiguity’ Labour was forced to take a position at its conference in September, against the wishes of its leadership, because pretty much every constituent part of the movement is in favour of remaining in the EU.
Labour’s official position now is to vote against the deal on the grounds that it fails to meet its six key tests; its first preference would be for a general election; and if that was not possible all options were on the table including a second referendum with the option to remain.
This final point is crucial. Jeremy Corbyn has been as reluctant as Theresa May to countenance a second referendum principally because there is a view in the leader’s office that sees membership of the EU as a restraint on its plans to nationalise parts of the economy.
So, what are Labour’s options? Firstly, they are duty bound to move a motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister, should she lose the meaningful vote in Parliament, in order to secure a general election. The question is over timing. Should the Government win a no confidence vote, the option of a general election will be off the table for the foreseeable future. Should the Government lose, then under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, Jeremy Corbyn will have 14 days to form a government with the approval of MPs. Only after exhausting this process can a general election be triggered.
However, Labour are by no means guaranteed to win a no confidence motion as the fear of a Corbyn government will likely reunite the Conservatives with the DUP. Labour are also wary of forming a government without an election for fear of being seen as opportunistic and trying to overturn the referendum result and, ultimately, lacking a mandate for their programme. Any decision will be tactical and made at the time.
If a general election is not immediately forthcoming there are a number of other options that Labour will pursue.
According to Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, the priority will be to prevent a no-deal which would require over 50 changes to legislation and could well have a profoundly damaging effect on the economy Expect Labour, with the support of Conservative remainers to table a raft of amendments designed to stop the UK crashing out of the EU and force the Prime Minister back to the negotiating table. This will be the point also where Parliament could be asked to back a second referendum.
The $64,000 question, however, is where Labour will stand if this vote were to take place. Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly said there will no second referendum and all hell broke loose last week when he told Der Spiegel in an interview that Brexit could not be stopped. The Shadow Brexit Secretary rushed to reaffirm the Party’s position in the Sunday papers and the Shadow Chancellor let it be known that his views might be changing; even going as far to let it be publicly be known that he has met with Alastair Campbell and other key staff from the Peoples Vote Campaign. Yesterday he told the BBC that if securing an election wasn’t possible “we’ll be calling upon the government then to join us in a public vote.”
This has led to ructions at the top of the Labour Party with Corbyn effectively being overruled. Corbyn’s conundrum is that he has voted against every European Treaty and was a reluctant remainer, while every other part of the Labour Party is in favour of remaining in the EU, despite what the electorate in Stoke-on-Trent Central might think. As with his views on Israel and Palestine, Corbyn is stubbornly refusing to change his mind, while McDonnell is calculating what concessions need to be made in order to get Labour into power.
The question then becomes what position the Labour leadership, and the Prime Minister for that matter, take on a second referendum and what form the questions should take. If there is to be a realignment of British politics, then this may well be the Rubicon. Quite apart from the mainstream parties there are now well-funded campaigns, on both sides, with extensive data sets and regional and national infrastructure and a much clearer proposition facing the electorate.