Contrary to media speculation, the recent votes on the EU Withdrawal Bill show that the real Brexit fight is being fought not among on Tory benches, but among Labour’s, says John Baron MP.

The successful passage of the current crop of Lords’ amendments is undoubtedly an achievement for the Government. The widespread speculation in the media and elsewhere that the Government would be unable to win its votes turned out to be wide of the mark, with good majorities on all the divisions. Perhaps the media was looking the wrong way, for it is the Labour benches which produced the biggest surprises – particularly Labour’s refusal to rule out sacrificing our ability to negotiate trade deals in order to pursue a customs union with the EU.

Whilst there were the expected Conservative rebels – despite most of them voting in favour of Article 50 and having to face reality eventually – the party which did experience wholesale rebellion was Jeremy Corbyn’s, not Theresa May’s. With a hung Parliament making every vote count, this is the real story of the moment. In a recent article, I made the point that the many Labour MPs who represent constituencies which voted ‘leave’ in 2016 would have to judge their stance very carefully. Their electorates are watching.

In the case of the vote on the European Economic Area, although Labour strongly ‘whipped’ their MPs to abstain, 15 nevertheless chose to support the Government – Laura Smith resigning from the Shadow Front Bench to do so – knowing that maintaining the obligations of EU membership, including free movement, is incompatible with the instruction of their electorates in 2016 to leave the EU. 74 Labour MPs, including five who also resigned Shadow Front Bench positions, similarly defied their leader’s instructions and voted to endorse EEA membership. No-one should be in any doubt about the extent to which Labour is divided on these issues – the votes on this Bill once again proffered an insight.

Moreover, the contradictions and inconsistency in Labour’s approach to Brexit is gradually being teased out. In sustained questioning in the Chamber on Wednesday, including from myself, the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, Sir Keir Starmer, refused to admit the obvious fact that ‘a’ customs union would mean that we sacrifice the opportunity of securing free trade deals with the 90% of the world’s economies with which the EU does not currently have a trade deal. The Government should keep on pointing this out until it is blue in the face.

Since the unexpected referendum result, a stunned but quietly powerful ‘remain’ campaign has been fighting a rear-guard action to ‘soften’ Brexit or even to reverse it altogether. However, with the current and forthcoming Brexit legislation, Labour MPs are increasingly conscious that this approach is coming up against hard electoral reality. After all, their 2017 election manifesto also committed them to leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union – this approach did well for them in their leave-supporting electoral heartlands of the Midlands and the North.

In all, over 80 per cent of voters endorsed leaving the Single Market and Customs Union by supporting either the Conservative or Labour manifestoes. Staying in both is incompatible with the referendum result and destroys some of the great advantages of Brexit – namely striking our own trade deals and taking back control of policy areas such as immigration – whilst leaving Britain as a ‘rule-taker’, an unacceptable position for one of the world’s largest economies. If these are truly Labour’s policies, they should find the courage Keir Starmer did not on Wednesday and say it openly.

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