Paris Gourtsoyannis: Labour's Brexit switch is gift to SNP

A diminished Nationalist group at Westminster can now help deliver a soft Brexit, says Paris Gourtsoyannis.

Labour's new position could give the SNP group at Westminster greater influence as a key part of a coalition for a soft Brexit.
Labour's new position could give the SNP group at Westminster greater influence as a key part of a coalition for a soft Brexit.

It could have as great an impact on the UK’s departure from the EU as anything the government achieves in the next year and a half of negotiations. It opens the door not only to a so-called “soft Brexit” that most Britons would like to see, but also to the possibility of the UK changing its mind about leaving the EU altogether.

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But before any of that unfolds, it could have an intriguing unintended consequence: giving a boost to the SNP at Westminster.

With the familiar end-of-holiday feeling, MPs will be getting ready for their Westminster return. For the Nationalists, some familiar faces will be missing from the school gates, having failed their exams and, in the case of one former first minister, run away to join the circus.

Cut down from the 56 of nationalist myth to a less heroic 35, the group has had to fight off the impression of being a diminished force at parliament. Their mojo and majorities have been stolen by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. One political diarist reports that they have even given up their Westminster bastion, the parliamentary staffer’s boozer Sports and Social.

Even when they were marching on Westminster in greater numbers, it was difficult to articulate for neutrals exactly what the SNP group was for. Sterling work on committees and blocking extended Sunday working hours in England didn’t quite equal “Standing up for Scotland”, unless you were really looking for it. In terms of gains they could take to the bank, there wasn’t enough to put on leaflets come election time.

It’s something senior SNP MPs themselves accept. The group insists that, since the election, it is leaner and meaner; more focused on delivering for constituents and defeating the government. Less prone to distraction at the trappings of Westminster.

But even with a minority government, the SNP’s influence as a (smaller) third party might have been limited. The balance of power lies with rebels on the Conservative benches.

But now, thanks to their opponents, the SNP group has a cause in which they can play the central role: delivering a soft Brexit for the whole of the UK.

That was the goal Nicola Sturgeon set for herself in the wake of the Brexit vote last year. Few believed it because her aspiration for the greater good was bound up with a threat to hold a second Scottish independence referendum.

Now, just as a second referendum that once seemed likely recedes, hopes for a soft Brexit have swelled.

Labour’s change of Brexit course is at once a subtle sidestep and a flamboyant act of cynicism. Not quite two months ago, Corbyn sacked three of his front bench for supporting membership of the single market by breaking the party whip to back an amendment to the Queen’s Speech.

And just because the rethink has apparently been agreed with the Labour leader, doesn’t mean he has any enthusiasm for it. On previous form, Corbyn may reverse course the moment he steps in front of a microphone without an autocue to prompt him.

In reality, all Labour have done is set out how long a transition they’d be willing to accept, and what it might look like.

The Labour leadership couldn’t rely on all its MPs to fall in line with its previous hard Brexit stance – 49 of them rebelled to vote in favour of that Queen’s Speech amendment on the single market two months ago.

It won’t be able to rely on obedience now that the party is pointing the other way, either. Eurosceptic MPs John Mann and Frank Field have already broken cover to condemn the new stance, warning that it risks pushing away voters in Labour’s de-industrialised former heartlands. Several more have joined them under the safety of anonymity. More will follow from Leave-voting constituencies once the message that staying in the single market means up to four more years of free movement from the rest of the EU.

It will fall to the SNP, and the other pro-European small parties, both to keep Labour honest and make the parliamentary arithmetic work so that the pressure is on the government.

A transition within the single market and customs union allows more time for the demographic facts on the ground to change: the longer it goes on, the more pro-EU the electorate becomes.

If it stretches beyond the next election in 2022, the political and economic realities can change, too. Under a Labour minority administration propped up by the SNP or Lib Dems, the transition could easily become permanent, with the UK simply staying in the single market altogether.

And if a deep Brexit fatigue has set it along with a likely economic downturn, then it opens to the door for the UK to change its mind.

Whatever the result of this change of heart for Labour, the SNP will always be able to say they were there first. And from the Nationalist perspective, there is another reason to throw their support behind Labour’s new stance. If it sees the UK remain in the single market, then a long transition out of the EU could also double as a transition back into the bloc for a newly independent Scotland.

A transition phase of up to four years offers Sturgeon enough time to regroup from the summer’s indyref2 setback and make the case for a second referendum once the UK’s final destination is known – perhaps by means of a two-question referendum, as has reportedly been discussed by senior Nationalist figures.

As they regroup for a two-year parliamentary term that cover the bulk of Brexit legislation, SNP MPs will be considering how to seize the opportunity Labour has given them.

They might not shake Westminster to its foundations, but they have a chance of a meaningful legacy for the whole UK.