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A completely pointless amendment

There was a lot of indignation yesterday from committed Remainers about Corbyn sacking those who supported the Chuka Umunna amendment on the Single Market. I’m a committed Remainer, but I couldn’t see what the point of the amendment was. That is because we are almost certain to leave the EU still in the Single Market.

In March I wrotethat the outline of the Brexit deal was fairly clear. Crucially, there would be a longish (many years) transitional arrangement to enable a bespoke trade deal to be negotiated. During this period we would preserve our position in the customs union and Single Market (and pay money to the EU to do so). The UK side may dress this up as something a little different, if they have the wit and energy to do so and if the EU lets them, but to all intents and purposes that means nothing changes on the trade side for some time. That conclusion didn’t require any great powers of foresight at the time, but simply followed from the length of time it takes to negotiate bespoke trade deals (see, for example, Alasdair Smith here).

My only uncertainty back in March was whether May would choose (or be forced to choose) No Deal. With the election giving more power to soft Brexit elements among the Conservatives (e.g. Hammond), I think No Deal is now very unlikely because parliament will vote it down. As a result, towards the end of 2018 we will know how much we have to pay in order to formally leave the EU, but things will otherwise stay pretty much as they are now.

What about a change in Prime Minister and an election? Unless something turns up (a big if), I suspect we will see neither before the end of 2018. The least important reason for this is May would rather be known as the PM who took us out of the EU than the PM who threw away certain victory in GE2017. One reason she is unlikely to be challenged over the next year and a half is that delaying the negotiations once again (this time for a leadership contest) just looks awful. Both ex Tory Remainers and Brexiteers are nervous of how a leadership election might evolve. If May is prepared to sacrifice her two lieutenants, she will also sacrifice the foolishred lines she created for the EU negotiations.

No Conservative contest of course means no election. Once again, unless something turns up, the Conservatives will want to leave an election for as long as possible in the hope that their popularity improves. Labour will be hoping that it wins that election, so it will be in charge of the trade negotiations designed to create a bespoke trade deal, but whoever is in charge it is difficult to see any enthusiasm for replacing the Single Market.

On the Conservative side the idea that we should leave the customs union because it will enable us to negotiate lots of trade deals of our own will be increasingly recognised as the nonsense that it is. It will also be obvious that any bespoke trade deal will require the same pooling of sovereignty as the Single Market. Brexiteers never had any real interest in ending freedom of movement: that was a ploy to get a Brexit vote. If Labour were in charge they would quickly find out that the Single Market did not prevent them doing most of what they want to do, and that there were easier ways of managing free movement. The priority would be repairing the public services, a task not helped by reducing immigration and weakening our trade position, so the bespoke trade deal will get kicked into the long grass.

Of course that means ending up with a situation where nothing has changed except that the UK will have paid the EU to no longer have any influence on the rules of the Single Market it is still part of. All that time and effort for a truly epic fail. The best hope for Remainers is that this realisation will dawn on enough Conservative MPs to embolden them to demand a second referendum. (This has always been the best strategy for Remainers: to work the Condorcet paradoxthat was at the heart of the referendum result.) In these circumstances it would be an extraordinary act of self harm if Labour did not join them in voting for a referendum. They would instantly be on the wrong side of the triangulation which served them so well in GE2017, which would put their popularity at serious risk.

Given all this, what was the point in the amendment to the Queen’s speech saying we should stay in the Single Market, given that the occasion meant that no Tory MPs could vote for it, and we will probably be staying in the Single Market anyway? (Jonn Elledge comes to similar conclusions by a different route.) When you are a leader of the opposition who has surprised himself by completely wrong footing the pundits through a combination of a manifesto that increases the size of the state and triangulation on Brexit, wouldn’t you be annoyed by such pointless and potentially harmful distractions? 

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