Here’s how to beat the government on the single market

by Hugo Dixon | 06.06.2018

MPs won’t back either Labour’s amendment on the single market or the original Lords one when they consider the EU Withdrawal Bill on Tuesday. But that’s not necessarily the end of the story. They might vote for a new, improved version if peers propose it in “ping pong”.

There are several problems with the Lords amendment 51 which calls for the UK to participate in the European Economic Area, the so-called “Norway” model. The biggest is that Corbyn won’t back staying a “member” of the single market. He thinks he can get a “better deal” than Norway, presumably by getting concessions on free movement of people and a greater voice in EU rules.

But there are also problems with Labour’s amendment to amendment 51. The killer one is that potential Tory rebels won’t back any proposal from Jeremy Corbyn. Some are already being bullied by hardline Brexiters in their constituency associations for not toeing the government’s line. Voting for something pushed by the Labour front-bench would be a step too far for even the bravest.

So far, so confusing. However, a new carefully-crafted Lords amendment could be another matter, particularly if it was proposed by a respected crossbench peer. Tory “mutineers’” objections to backing it would then vanish, as might Corbyn’s.

Peers will have a chance to propose new amendments after MPs have had their say. Anything they agree will then go back to the Commons. The bill could then head back to the Lords again, until both Houses agree. Hence, the name “ping pong”.

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So what could a new improved amendment say?

Well, this new single market amendment could say something like: “The government should explore the option of maintaining full access to the single market”.

This language would copy Corbyn’s phrase “full access”, avoiding the red rag of “membership” of the single market. And if it said “explore the option” of full access rather than have this as a “negotiating objective”, it wouldn’t commit those who vote for it to accept whatever the government manages to negotiate.

EEA enthusiasts will say “full access” to the single market isn’t possible unless we are a member. But we don’t know that for sure. Maybe the EU is prepared to blur some of its red lines if we also blur ours.

What’s more, surely these EEA-backers should be happy with any move towards the single market that has a chance of winning MPs’ approval?

If the government finds that the EU won’t give any flexibility on rule-taking and free movement, those who vote for the amendment can say “not good enough”. Equally, if the EU does agree concessions, MPs can ask whether the same flexibility would be shown if we stay in the EU.

There’s an analogy with the customs union debate here, where careful wording has already built a consensus. Labour won’t back staying in “the” customs union, but it is supporting staying in “a” customs union. It is now likely May will lose the vote on that next week.

One final point: the original Lords’ amendment could undermine the campaign for a people’s vote, as I argued in the Guardian last month. We’ll be accused of hypocrisy if we push EEA membership now and slam the government for turning us into a rule-taker later. But the same would not apply to the improved version. It could advance the cause of getting a people’s vote and stopping Brexit.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “Here’s how to beat the government on the single market”

  • All these plots and machinations are pointless as long as Corbyn is Labour leader. He wants Brexit and won’t countenance anything that could hinder that.

  • With the crucial Lords amendments votes coming up next week, it is entirely depressing hearing that, in all probability, the chances of defeating the Government on the Single Market are going to be scuppered by Pro-EU Labour MPs not voting for the Lords amendment and Tory “rebels” not voting for an alternative Labour amendment. To be honest, I don’t particularly care whether its a Conservative or a Labour led motion which wins. It all seems rather petty to be splitting hairs on the exact wording of a motion, when the basic issue is clear. There is a majority of Commons MPs who support our continued partaking in the Single Market, and that ought to be reflected in the outcome. Despite the positive noises in recent weeks about co-operation between leading Pro-EU campaigners from both main parties, if no majority is found for either motion, the only winners will be those wanting a Hard and destructive Brexit. (As an aside, the Government are also showing their contempt for the parliamentary process by compressing the debates into a mere 12 hours).

    I agree that a People’s Vote, and a later decision to reverse Brexit altogether would be an optimal outcome, and therefore preferable to the EEA, but that is putting all our eggs into one basket. It is also kicking the can further down the road to a time when other options may no longer be on the table. There is a danger of wanting to wait for a specific optimal solution that is never on offer. Therefore, the EEA option should be grasped. It covers service industries, unlike the customs union, and we could tailor it to exclude sectors such as agriculture and fisheries. It also removes the vast majority of the complications for citizens’ and travel rights. It also allows MPs to remain consistent with the Referendum result, which of course, did not include a mandate to leave the EEA or customs union.

    My view remains that Pro-Europe MPs should be taking any opportunity they can to defeat the Government on the Brexit Bill. To miss the opportunities coming up next week, because of tribal party loyalties, would be unforgiveable. Governments can change, but the consequences of wrong decisions on our future relationship with Europe will last alot longer.