In a time when barely an hour passes without something interesting happening in British politics, some people might have missed that Jeremy Corbyn’s position on the UK remaining in the single market appears to have got a little muddy this afternoon:
Labour source repeatedly refuses to say that Jeremy Corbyn wants Britain to remain a member of the single market
— Emily Ashton (@elashton) September 7, 2016
Now, this might all be a flash in the pan – though attempts to clarify Corbyn’s position don’t seem to be helping – but it feels potentially important for the future of the Labour party.
With my usual caveat that almost every prediction of a party split comes to nothing, membership of the single market feels to me like the issue that could act as a key division in a Labour split. If Corbyn wants to try a push a position of supporting the UK leaving the single market, remaining in it is a key issue (with a huge amount of current salience) that unites a big portion of the Parliamentary Labour Party from the right to the soft left. The divisions over the single market aren’t just in Labour either – Downing Street has already had to correct the Government’s own Brexit minister over his position on it.
If Corbyn won’t defend the single market, the thinking might go, there’s a huge space available for an opposition that will. It’s an issue that can create links across parties (such as to the SNP, the remaining Tory pro-Europeans and the Liberal Democrats) and also generate support from outside the parties. There are a lot of large businesses that would lose a lot if Britain loses membership of the single market (the Japanese are just the first to make this clear and public), and if such a split needed the funding and structure to become a party of its own, that would be a very important factor.
Now, this might just be a subject of interest for an afternoon and Corbyn might close it down by declaring his unequivocal support for the single market at his next press conference (‘I’m delighted to have the support of 63% of the people who worked on Bonekickers‘) but it’s clear that the UK’s relationship with the EU is going to be the fundamental issue in British politics for the next few years. If Corbyn is going to shift his public position on that to one not shared by the bulk of the PLP, it could be the trigger for the final breaking of ties.