Our party must be prepared to force the government back to the negotiating table – or keep Britain in the European Union – if it delivers a bad Brexit deal, argues Ben Bradshaw MP
Triggering article 50 was the easy bit. The government now faces the most difficult and complicated negotiations ever undertaken by a country in modern peacetime, as it tries to extract the United Kingdom from the European Union. In these talks, it is us against the 27 other governments, the European commission and the European parliament.
In her article 50 letter the prime minister adopted a more emollient tone than that struck recently by some of her Brextremist colleagues and their cheerleaders in the anti-European press. This included recognising that the UK has financial and other liabilities, which we will have to honour before we can leave, as well as an acknowledgement that the jurisdiction of the European court of justice will have to continue to apply here in some form, at least for a transitional period, if trade is not going to be severely hit.
May also ditched the silly and probably illegal suggestion by some Brexiters that EU nationals arriving here from now on should lose their rights and, interestingly, she also omitted to mention the customs union in either her letter or her Commons statement. This, despite previous statements from ministers that we would be leaving the customs union as well as the single market.
So far, so good. But she then rather spoiled this conciliatory approach by allowing Number 10 spinners and the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, to imply the government would use Britain’s policing and security role as a bargaining chip. That is nonsense, of course, because no sensible government here or on the continent is going to want to be seen risking people’s lives by damaging vital cooperation, which helps keep us all safe.
But May’s strangest gambit was to insist that it is ‘necessary’ for the details of our divorce from Europe to be ‘agreed alongside’ the details of our future relationship. This is, and never was, going to happen – something the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and others made clear within minutes of receiving May’s letter. Our negotiating partners have consistently said – both in public and in private – that the issues of the UK’s liabilities, the rights of EU nationals here and UK nationals there and the thorny problem of the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland must be settled, before talks on our future relationship, including trade, can begin.
We now enter a period of danger. Up until now, Brexit has been a British domestic issue and May, with her 19 per cent opinion poll lead and a divided pro-European opposition, has dominated. But she now loses control of both the process and the agenda. If she compromises, which she will have to in the national interest, she will face accusations of ‘betrayal’ from her hard-right members of parliament and the Brextremist press. These modern wreckers have been quite open about their enthusiasm for walking away without any deal at all and falling ‘back’ or, more accurately, ‘over a cliff’ onto World Trade Organisation rules, something that would be disastrous for British jobs, living standards and security for years to come. The hard Tory right and their press chums are the ones who have been driving May up until now and they will not give up.
But it feels as if the implications of such a dirty, chaotic Brexit seem finally to have dawned on the prime minister. She did not repeat her claim that no deal would be better than a bad deal this week and she struggled in her extremely revealing interview with Andrew Neil when asked what she had meant by an ‘alternative economic model’ in her previous comments about the no deal scenario to even begin to answer the question.
While welcome, this is little consolation, because the hard Brexit she is still pursuing – outside the single market and most if not all of the customs union – is not much better. The reality of what this would mean will now begin to dawn. Businesses and other sectors of our economy, that face losing most from a hard Brexit, have so far remained quiet, in the hope that the government will negotiate them a special deal. But they will break their silence once they realise no special sectoral deal for them is on offer. As Merkel made clear to her own carmakers and other manufacturers last week, maintaining the unity of the EU is more important to her and the other 26 than carving out special deals for particular sectors. As the reality of the prospect of tariff and non-tariff barriers sinks in, will our exporters and importers really stay shtum? There are likely to be more announcements of relocations outside the UK to follow Lloyds of London’s this week and consumers will face the prospect of even higher prices for imported goods than they already are from the fall in the value of the pound.
Those of us who oppose a destructive hard Brexit or Brexit altogether have a huge responsibility. We will be working flat out, across parties, to hold the government to the account. We will be reminding Brexit secretary David Davis of his words in January that we will enjoy the ‘exact same benefits’ when we leave the European Union as we do now. There was a welcome strengthening of Labour’s frontbench position this week, with Keir Starmer’s six tests. These virtually, but not quite, amount to single market membership. The real test for us will come in 18 months’ or two years’ time when we will have to decide whether or not to support whatever the government that come back with. It is surely inconceivable that Labour would back either a bad deal or no deal at all. In which case we will need to be prepared to vote with others to force the government to try again or to stay in on current terms and to put that choice to the people in a general election or another referendum. There is a lot of water to flow under the Brexit bridge and circumstances, including UK public opinion, could look very different then than they do now. This could provide a huge and much needed opportunity for Labour, if we are prepared to grasp it.