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What Are Opposition MPs Hoping to Get Out of Debating Article 50?

Now we know that Article 50 will be put to a Parliamentary vote, this is what Labour and SNP MPs will likely be angling for.

by Tess Reidy
09 November 2016, 2:00pm

(Photo: UK Parliament, via)

Last week the High Court ruled that Parliament must vote on Article 50 before it is triggered. This was characterised as a blow to the government and a victory for backbenchers and opposition parties, who hope this will lead to great scrutiny on Brexit negotiations.

But now they've been granted this extra oversight, what is it that opposition parties actually want? Yes, they want scrutiny – but on what exactly?

In Scotland, Remain voters had a clear majority, a margin of 24 points. But the SNP say they will not attempt to veto the decision to leave the EU. Instead, Nicola Sturgeon says, the emphasis will be on ensuring a good deal for the Scottish people, including debate in Holyrood. "Triggering Article 50 will inevitably deprive Scottish people and Scottish businesses of rights and freedoms which they currently enjoy," she said. "It simply cannot be right that those rights can be removed by the UK government on the say-so of a Prime Minister without parliamentary debate, scrutiny or consent. So legislation should be required at Westminster and the consent of the Scottish Parliament should be sought before Article 50 is triggered."

The SNP is in a tricky position with voters. If the party holds a second referendum on Scottish independence it is likely that they would lose, and that could be ruinous politically. Equally, if they don't have a second IndyRef, it may be seen as a missed opportunity. For that reason, long, drawn-out parliamentary scrutiny of Article 50 might be the best bet for them. Debate in Parliament would be a good way for Sturgeon to grumble and complain about the process, and threaten a referendum without actually having to have one.

For Labour, the issue is more complicated. Confusion still surrounds the party's stance on Brexit after seemingly contradictory positions emerged from the most senior members of the party. On Sunday, deputy leader Tom Watson made clear the party would not block the result of the referendum vote, right after Jeremy Corbyn appeared to suggest he could oppose the Prime Minister's attempts to trigger Article 50 under certain conditions.

"It's tricky [to know what Labour hope to achieve], given how split the party is," says Iain Begg, research fellow at the LSE. "However, what most in Labour will want to secure from the Brexit negotiations is protection not just of jobs, through the best possible trade deal, but also of working conditions."

Others agree. Siobhain McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, says: "My worry is jobs and people's livelihoods. If you don't have access to the single market, which I think represents about 40 percent of our market, then where are we going? I was a remain – I campaigned for remain – but I fully respect that we lost the referendum, therefore I just don't see how you can refuse Article 50 be enacted. The priority is ensuring people continue to have rights at work."

According to one academic who is working with the Labour party on the issue, and spoke on the condition of anonymity, most MPs want to make sure that if we are leaving then we do remain within the single market, which isn't strictly speaking the government's policy (as far as they have any policy). "They want to impose that because they feel leaving the single market would be a threat to some of their voters and to some trade union members," he says. "As well as this, it is about making sure that leaving isn't all about stopping immigration."

There are other factors at play, too. "The party doesn't want to be seen to be resisting the result of the referendum; they want to look like they're willing to abide by it, but equally they don't just want to sort of go along with what the government says," said the academic. "Dragging this leave process out is quite a good fallback position for them."

There are also tactical moves at play. There are MPs in the party who think they can't oppose leaving right away, but they want to at least stall it a while and introduce a process whereby Parliament has more control. Then, perhaps further down the line, if the economy is doing badly and public opinion looks like it might be getting wobbly on the idea of leaving, they can think about reversing their position.

Just like the SNP, Labour wants to make problems for the government, look like they're scrutinising legislation and avoid disruption in their own party. So often in politics, talking about the process is a way of avoiding more difficult discussions about substantive issues. This is causing major problems for May's "Brexit means Brexit" agenda. Her timetable is now under extreme pressure and it's very difficult for her to plan the exit.

On the 7th of December, the Supreme Court could overturn the decision of the High Court, and so the government won't know until at least next month what they will need to do. They may even have to pass legislation through the unelected Lords (which has a majority against leaving and will be less wary about voting against the electorate) or have to keep going back to Parliament to vote on every issue, which could prolong the Brexit indefinitely.

All of which would weaken the government's position with Leave voters and create inner turmoil within the Tory party. And, when it comes down to it, that's probably what opposition parties want most of all: some kind of dent in the Conservatives' seemingly robust popularity.


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