ANALYSIS: The Tories are split on Brexit - but Labour's problems are just beginning

Posted On: 
18th December 2017

While the Conservatives have been engaging in their favourite pastime of tearing themselves apart over Europe, Labour's own splits have largely avoided too much scrutiny. 

Keir Starmer has tried to move Labour's Brexit position.
PA Images

A small glimpse into the confusion at the heart of the party's approach came on Sunday, when Tom Watson refused to rule out a second EU referendum just an hour after Diane Abbott said Labour does not support the policy.

But that is small fry compared to the real Brexit battle within Labour which is bound to come to a head at some point in the first half of 2018.

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At the moment, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has just about managed to appear Remain-y enough for the pro-EU voters who flocked to the party in June, while also being Leave-y enough not to turn off the traditional Labour voters who support the UK's imminent departure from the European Union.

Labour's current policy - such as it is - is to insist that Britain should stay in a single market and a customs union, at least during a two-year post Brexit transitional period, while at the same time respecting the result of the referendum.

However, PoliticsHome has learned that behind the scenes, powerful forces are preparing to pile pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to go even further by committing Labour to supporting full-blown single market and customs union membership.

A major clue came shortly after midnight last Thursday, in the wake of Theresa May losing a vote for the first time on the EU Withdrawal Bill. Anneliese Midgley, political director of Unite the Union, tweeted her joy at the result, and called on Labour to back membership of the single market and customs union.

Insiders have said that Midgley - who was Corbyn's deputy chief of staff before leaving to take up her union role - was "mortified" by the now-deleted tweet, which was also in defiance of Unite's own stated policy.

It did, however, reveal a deeper truth. Unite bosses believe the only way to avoid large-scale job losses for their members is for the UK to remain in both the single market and customs union permanently after Brexit. Labour are not there at the moment, but Corbyn and his team will soon be lobbied hard to make it official party policy.

One senior Union source said: "We're going to come to a crunch point next year. The TUC are also going to put a lot of pressure on."

The tensions throw up the tantalising possibility of the first major split between Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and his long-term comrade, Corbyn.

But those hoping for a change of heart in Labour's high command may have their work cut out. As well as having to overcome the party leader's well-known euroscepticism, they also must convince him that such a seismic shift in policy will not cost votes in its Leave-voting northern heartlands.

Either way, the relatively easy ride which Labour has enjoyed while the Conservative civil war has been in full swing will shortly come to an end.

​The Tories may well be split from top to bottom on Brexit - but Labour's own EU problems are just beginning.