Legislating for the Withdrawal Agreement

Part of Yemen – in the House of Commons at 7:41 pm on 10th September 2018.

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Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Intervention), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 7:41 pm, 10th September 2018

It is especially apt that we are having this general debate today as undoubtedly Brexit will be the major issue facing us as Members of Parliament over the coming weeks and months. We are about to enter a huge parliamentary moment when it comes to the withdrawal agreement meaningful vote, and today is an opportunity for Members to outline the way ahead as we see it. Having pondered the current state of play over the summer recess, I can honestly stand here before the House and say anything could happen over the next few months. I will therefore refrain from making arguments on the type of deal required and will instead concentrate on my interpretation and how I see matters at the moment.

Future historians will not be kind to this generation of politicians for getting us to where we are now. Former Prime Minister Cameron will be judged for holding the referendum in the first place as a means of easing party management. The current Prime Minister will be judged for wasting the first two years of the leaving process by basing her policy on extreme red lines only to change her major strategic objective late in the day, as I will explain later. And the Labour Opposition will be judged for a lack of coherence in policy and playing political games with the biggest political issue of our time. Labour knows that its six Brexit tests can only be met by staying within the single market and the customs union, specifically test 2 of ensuring the exact same benefits of our current membership, yet its policy is to leave both frameworks. It is a completely cynical position to take, with its only goal being to try to use Brexit to force another general election.

I for one saw the Prime Minister’s Chequers statement of July as a significant moment. Leaving aside the near collapse of her Government due to the resignations of the Brexit and Foreign Secretaries, it outlined for the first time that the driving force of policy would be protecting the economy, not dealing with immigration. The natural development of that policy would be to come to the same conclusion as Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats: the objective of the British state should be to stay within key European economic frameworks. Unfortunately, of course, the British Government continue to be wedded to a “have your cake and eat it” scenario, which obviously the European Union will not entertain. The French European Minister Nathalie Loiseau clearly told in the Evening Standard last Wednesday:

“We will not redefine our basic principles because the UK doesn’t want to belong to the European Union anymore.”

Much of the media attention over the summer recess has surrounded the potential for no deal as we approach the October, or what now seems to be the November, deadline in Brussels. However, while it may come to pass that talks collapse, I believe that some fudge will be agreed and that it will then come to this House for approval to trigger the necessary withdrawal legislation. At that stage, as I put it to the Brexit Secretary during his statement of 24 July, I find it difficult to see how the Prime Minister will be able to get a majority of the House to support her position.

As I said earlier in this speech, Labour’s policy is basically to use Brexit as a means of forcing a general election, and it will therefore oppose the fudge, although how that will solve the problem I do not know, because essentially Labour’s policy is not that far removed from that of the Conservative Government. The Brexit buccaneers in the Prime Minister’s party whose objective is no deal will also vote down the fudge as it would make a no deal more likely, unless they make the more nuanced calculation that the only thing that is more important for them is getting to the 29 March deadline, because after that date and once we are outside the EU anything negotiated beforehand is not worth the paper it is written on. Considering that two Secretaries of State resigned on the basis of the Chequers announcement, however, it is difficult to see how they and their supporters can back the Prime Minister.

Those of us who believe that staying within European frameworks is the only way to safeguard jobs and wages will also vote against. I am sure that the British Government will say their aim is to stay within regulatory alignment—the adoption of the so-called common rulebook—thereby easing our economic concerns. The Minister might want to correct me when summing up, but my understanding of the situation is that currently the rules governing the single market are made in Brussels and then every member state, and in some states sub-regional governments such as Wallonia, have to endorse those changes before they become part of the European single market regulations. What the British Government are proposing is that Europe comes up with new regulations for the single market and then we would have to adopt them via statutory instrument in this place—no mention of the devolved Governments of course, but that is a separate issue. The question then arises: what happens perhaps three or four years down the line if this Parliament decides not to adopt one of those SIs? Does the whole thing collapse at that moment? I do not see how the plan currently envisaged by the British Government can be sustainable in the long term.

I will also vote against because, essentially, supporting the fudge that I envisage would mean supporting what is now being termed as a blind Brexit, which means the fine detail of the future economic relations between the British state and the European Union will only be determined after the British state has left the EU. How could responsible Members of Parliament with concerns about the economic impact of Brexit make that leap of faith? I should add that the previous argument of the British Government was that the transition and the final deal would have to be negotiated together, because it was impossible to transition unless we knew what we were transitioning to, but that argument has now been long forgotten.

My final reason for voting against the expected fudge is that, by leaving the detail until after the British state is no longer a member of the EU, the balance of power in the negotiations will move even further in favour of Brussels. The current pathway to Brexit by the Prime Minister seems completely naive. The future economic partnership with the European Union will be by far the most important trade deal the British state will ever make—it will dwarf any other the British state ever makes. It is therefore beyond my comprehension why the British Government want to give further leverage away in those negotiations. Furthermore, leverage within the Conservative party at this stage will swing decisively towards the European Research Group of Brexit extremists after 29 March next year.

If my analysis is correct and the meaningful vote does not gain the approval of the House, as I said during the Brexit Secretary’s statement on 24 July, the British Government will face four choices. First, they could seek to extend article 50 to renegotiate with the European Union. That would seem sensible to me as leaving the business end of the negotiations to after the British state is outside the EU seems completely bizarre. Secondly, the British Government could call a new referendum, possibly a multi-choice one, including the Prime Minister’s proposal and, vitally, the option of staying in the EU. Thirdly, if the meaningful vote does not gain the approval of the House the Labour party would move a motion of no confidence in order to force a general election but, as I have already said, this will not offer a solution to the Brexit paralysis unless Labour drastically changes its position. Equally, the Government might move one against themselves, resigning the Conservative party to defeat and leaving the Labour party to deal with the resulting pandemonium. In fact, an option for the Government might be to include a motion of no confidence in the meaningful vote, as that would be a manner for them to deal with the challenge set by Mr Rees-Mogg, who is no longer in his place. He said that he would not vote for the final fudge that comes back from Brussels, but he also said that he would never vote against the Government on a motion of no confidence, so that would be a way of placing him and his political followers in political difficulty.

At that stage, the likelihood is that a motion of no confidence would be carried, resulting in another election, unless an alternative Government of sensible MPs were to come together within the 14-day deadline under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and steer the British state on to a more sensible course. In the past, I have floated that idea as a pragmatic solution, and I put it on record that I do so again today.

The last likely scenario is that no deal would become inevitable by default, as opposed to by design. Over the summer, writing for The Times, I called on the British Government to remove no deal from the political theatre. As a negotiating tactic with the European Union, it has failed miserably. It has also failed to bribe this House into supporting the Prime Minister’s position. All it has done is to embolden the kamikaze side of the Conservative party. Far be it from me to offer political advice to the Prime Minister, but if she were acting rationally, she would disempower the European Research Group wing of her party by taking no deal off the table.

Politics is not a game, and our actions as Members of this House over the next few weeks and months will have far-reaching consequences. The position taken by me and my colleagues has been consistent from the day after the referendum—namely, that the economic wellbeing of our constituents has to come first and last. The British Government are eventually moving in the right direction, but they will have to move far further and far more quickly if they are to avoid the approaching slow-motion train crash.