Labour’s ‘six tests’ for determining whether they will support the final Brexit deal represents a significant hardening of attitude by the party, but it’s a bit late in the day. The demand that any deal should ensure that the UK gets the “exact same benefits” as it currently enjoys from the single market and the customs union sounds a lot like arguing that, actually, we are better off staying in; but adding to it the other demand that it should also ensure the “fair management of immigration” makes it sound like another wishy-washy fudge in which we get the benefits but ignore the rules. I don’t know what else the remaining EU members can do to clarify that membership of the single market necessarily implies acceptance of the rules on freedom of movement, but on this point, it seems that Labour’s ears are made of the same cloth as the Tories’ ears.
The biggest problem with this toughening of the party’s stance, though, is that it is too little too late. Labour MPs voted overwhelmingly in parliament for a Brexit bill which gave the government carte blanche to take the UK out of the EU, the single market, the customs union, and any other arrangement which has anything to do with being European. And they accepted an act which fails to include any provision for a meaningful vote on the terms of the deal at the end of the negotiations. Trying to set conditions retrospectively looks insincere at the least. It looks more about putting them in a position to criticise whatever the Tories do than about trying to make a real difference; presumably in an attempt to boost their own party’s support.
The logical outcome of the policy position outlined at the weekend is that the party will oppose Brexit, seek to reverse the decision taken in the referendum, and seek to negotiate a few minor changes to the EU treaties; anything short of that is just playing political games. They won’t do that, however; there’s no chance. They’re simply too hogtied by their acceptance that people voting for what is increasingly obviously a false prospectus is an unchallengeable outcome.
Labour and others can argue all they like about the mandate being only to leave the EU itself, not to leave the single market or the customs union, but the Brexiteers have always wanted a complete break. They might not have said that quite so explicitly during the referendum campaign, but repatriating full control over all laws and regulations was never going to be compatible with staying in the single market. That much was obvious last June – anything else which was said was just campaigning. It was dishonest campaigning, sure, but Labour are hardly in a great position to take the moral high ground on that issue.
If Labour and other opposition parties were to come out and say openly that, actually Brexit isn’t such a good idea at all, they might be credible. But saying that they support Brexit whilst setting conditions which they know to be impossible is neither credible nor honest. Aiming for the best of all worlds (for their party at least) in which they get support from leavers and remainers alike is more likely to lead them to the worst of all worlds in which they gain the trust and support of neither. They’d be better off with a principled stand one way or the other - but then most of them would have difficulty recognising one of those if they saw it.