Is Labour actually managing to do its job as a decent opposition? Yesterday, the party forced the government into a U-turn over whether the Prime Minister must reveal her plan for Brexit negotiations before triggering Article 50. This was over an Opposition Day debate, which leads to a vote that is not binding on the government, and is therefore normally safe to ignore. Ministers have been even more relaxed about these debates over the past few months given Labour has little political heft at the moment, and has on occasion used its Opposition Day slots as a means of internal party management, such as the debate on Yemen. But last night Theresa May was forced to amend the Opposition’s motion in order to stave off a defeat for the government, which, given the matter is Brexit, would have been embarrassing.
This is the sort of thing an Opposition should be doing all the time. Opposition Day debates can either be as pointless as student union arguments over the size of the font on a banner, or serious pressure points that have the whips running around in circles, but Keir Starmer, who is leading for Labour on this issue, is the only one who has succeeded this year in getting ministers at all worried. It is a little easier for him, perhaps, because Brexit isn’t just such a big, confusing issue (about which the government itself is confused), but also because there are splits in the Tory party on the matter. It is more difficult for shadow ministers covering other departments because there is so little legislation around at the moment, so they have few controversial policy issues to choose from. But the Shadow Secretary for Exiting the EU has done a good job of using Parliament to make the government nervous, which is one of the principle roles of the Opposition.
It is quite feasible for Starmer to enjoy more successes like this one in future – and for his colleagues to replicate them too. What is more implausible is that Jeremy Corbyn manages to produce as clear and confident a line of questioning at Prime Minister’s Questions as Emily Thornberry did today. The Labour frontbencher, who is often underrated as a Commons performer because of her lack of popularity among colleagues and her infamous ‘image from Rochester’ incident, had six very good questions all focused on one small issue, rather than adopting Corbyn’s tactic of finding an important policy area and wandering all around the houses on the different problems associated with it. This meant that David Lidington actually had to work rather hard to get through the questions without saying much at all on whether Britain will have to leave the customs union – something he had warned about in February.
Now, even though the government doesn’t have all that much policy in circulation beyond vague deflective statements on red, white and blue Brexit, these performances from Thornberry and Starmer should be quite unremarkable. Even Ed Miliband’s Labour party managed to raise issues in Opposition Day debates that worried the Tories. Perhaps this is the start of a period in which Labour becomes an effective Opposition. But it’s difficult to see how that can really be sustained when the Tories simply do not fear the man Thornberry was merely standing in for today.