It is very unusual for a Tory MP to say he is “ashamed to be British in many ways”. But those were the recent words of Charles Tannock, complaining about his party’s stance on Brexit.
He even went on to say the Tories were “mired in arrogance and hubris… the petty nationalisms, the triumphalism.”
Tannock joined criticisms from senior Tories, including the former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine. These Tories have denounced Theresa May, and openly talked about ditching her in order to prepare for the next election.
But moves to oust May could be a long way off. Most Tories will want to avoid defeat on the European Union (withdrawal) Bill which will be debated in Parliament, starting on Thursday 7 September. Tory backbenchers are under intense pressure not to put amendments to the Bill and not to vote against it. Probably even the softest of Tory soft Brexiters are too loyal to defy the Tory whips, but some, like Anna Soubry see opposing hard Brexit issue as a matter of principle.
The Tories also face an emboldened Labour Party, with a clearer stance on Brexit. Labour has recently said it favours the UK staying in the single market and the customs union for a long transition and even indefinitely. The party is campaigning to vote down the Bill.
While not many Tories will back a Labour amendment on the single market one tabled by a Tory rebel could get support and it this may be backed by Labour and other parties.
However, most likely the serious confrontations over the Bill will come at the committee stage when MPs of all parties will put down amendments. The longer the Parliamentary process drags out, the more likely a government defeat will follow.
For Labour to back a Tory amendment on a single market would be a mistake — it would undermine Labour taking a distinct line and risk tying Labour into Tory soft-Brexit political priorities. But there are other problems with Labour’s recalibrated stance on Brexit.
Labour has also said it will seek to limit immigration in any final settlement. This is abject. Even Anna Soubry advocates the maintenance of free movement from the EU!
And public opinion is shifting on both Europe and free movement. A new YouGov/Times poll says that 58 per cent of people believe that trading with the EU is a higher priority than controlling EU immigration. A majority of Labour members are also likely to be in favour of defending EU free movement.
Labour’s leadership should get in line with the views of its members and the majority of public opinion. It should make a clear defence of free movement. Not to do so will give ground to the Tory “League of Empire Fantasists”.