The Lords vote is a lifeline to Labour to recover its lost honour after ending up tailing behind Tory and Ukip MPs into the anti-European lobby last month. Reports from universities say that students are dropping out of Labour fast as they see the party unable to differentiate itself from the lines peddled by Ukip and its fellow travellers in the Cabinet and among Conservative MPs.
The young voted massively for Europe; it was always odd to see Labour MPs lining up with the old against the young. Now the old men and women of the Lords have given Labour a way out, saying that once the final outcome of the Article 50 negotiations is known, Parliament – not Downing Street – should make the final decision.
To vote for a vote is not a repudiation, still less a rejection, of the 37 per cent of the electorate who voted to leave the EU last year. It is perfectly possible to leave the EU and still maintain the closest of economic and trade relations via membership of European Free Trade Association, as the thoughtful Labour MP Liam Byrne MP has argued.
The Article 50 negotiations won’t get going properly until a new German government is in place much later this year. And if Emmanuel Macron becomes President of France, there will be powerful new pro-EU voice at the summit of Europe. EU growth is coming back as the impact of the financial crash imported from the US in 2007-08 finally wears away.
There will be a short number of months to sort out the technical details of Britain withdrawing from the EU. There is no giant all-encompassing deal in view. Further negotiations on dozens of sectors from aviation landing rights and Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland, to Europol and the rights of British expats, will last well into the 2020s. What actually can be achieved by spring 2019 is a withdrawal treaty, which is an international legal obligation whenever a country says it no longer wants to be part of an international treaty organisation. The constitutional convention is such a case is that, while the Government can initiate treaty negotiations, Parliament must ratify whatever the final outcome is.
Labour, therefore, can unite around supporting this Parliamentary rule. That would not mean arguing for Article 50 not be invoked, nor that the narrow majority of 23 June 2016 would be repudiated.
Already most opinion polls show unease over the hard Brexit May is proposing, which, as Chuka Umunna has correctly argued, spells disaster for the UK economy and jobs. According to YouGov, 70 per cent of Labour voters are opposed to Brexit. In Copeland, Labour’s vote to support May on Article 50 in the division lobby failed to convince voters. In Stoke – supposedly the Brexit capital of Britain, with the biggest support last June from Labour’s white working class supporters – Ukip's appeal has evaporated.
No votes are eternal and Labour is making a classic psephological error in assuming the vote of last June is the last and only word of its core supporters on the matter of Europe. Yet voting for a vote does not oblige any Labour MP to vary his or her opinion on how to handle the broader question of Brexit, or whether they are in alignment with voters or not in each constituency.
Labour can fuse principle and politics by standing for the right of Parliament to say Yes or No to the outcome of Article 50 negotiations. That is in line with constitutional practice, sends a message to Ukip and to fellow travellers in the Cabinet, and tells the young of Britain that Labour is back on their side.
Denis MacShane was Minister of Europe in the last Labour government
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