Over a week after being instructed to do so by the Brady amendment, Theresa May finally took a trip to Brussels yesterday. The Prime Minister was there to lay the groundwork for a backstop change that could get Tory rebels on board with her deal. But Jeremy Corbyn’s open letter to the PM, released the night before, worked a treat: rather than discuss backstop changes they’ve already ruled out, the EU were keen to talk about the Labour leader’s soft Brexit. After all, it goes some way to soothe the backstop headache and – as their Brexit coordinator made clear when welcoming Corbyn’s proposal – the EU doesn’t want a deal “based on majority of six, seven, eight, nine votes in the House of Commons”. They know that Labour’s alternative, which has already been warmly greeted by Conservative MPs such as Nick Boles, Antoinette Sandbach and government minister Stephen Hammond, could win solid, cross-party support in parliament.
Reaction to Corbyn’s letter was definitely positive from the EU, which is no surprise considering the position was developed following contact with Brussels insiders, according to Paul Waugh. (Keir Starmer is known to have been working closely with Brussels until the divorce deal was agreed. It seems those channels have now reopened.) Reaction within Labour was mixed, however (something May was keen to emphasise to the EU – ‘hey, they’re split too!’). 2016 leadership challenger Owen Smith threatened to quit the party over the development in Labour’s Brexit position. Resigning as a party member is “something that I and lots of other people are considering now”, he told the BBC yesterday. His outrage at the idea that Labour could officially back a Brexit deal was shared by others in the PLP, who appear to have forgotten the 2017 manifesto commitment to respect the referendum result.
This backlash led Keir Starmer and Matthew Pennycook to tweet that Corbyn’s letter did not go against conference policy, and the Labour leader later emailed members to confirm that the five demands had not taken supporting another referendum off the table. This was all very strange because, as I wrote in more detail here, People’s Vote campaigners were actually rather pleased with the latest shift. They already know the leadership doesn’t want to support their campaign, so weren’t surprised that the idea didn’t get a mention in the letter. What they saw is that the stakes had been raised and the ultimatum made clearer: either May pivots to a Norway Plus/Common Market 2.0 model or Labour backs a ‘people’s vote’. They reckon the PM won’t split her party by adopting a soft alternative, which makes the latter option not unlikely. There was a disconnect yesterday between the grassroots PV-ers and the PV-endorsing MPs.
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