Posted: 1 March, 2019 at 5:19 pm

Brexit update – 1 March 2019

Theresa May has now promised a vote on the Government’s Brexit deal in December, January, February and March. But she has put it to the test only once (in January), and lost by 230 votes – the biggest defeat for any Government on any issue in Parliament’s history.

Our top Labour priority continues to be to prevent a ‘no deal’ Brexit on 29 March. Nothing would carry over without agreement, from the supply of NHS medicines to tariff-free food to smooth manufacturing supply chains.

The Bank of England has forecast an economic hit as bad as the global financial crisis and recession in 2008. The NFU (national farmers’ union) say it would be “catastrophic for British agriculture” with British farmers exporting to Europe facing tariffs of 67% for lamb and 85% for beef. The Government has taken powers to override GPs so patients are given substitute drugs in smaller batches by pharmacists. And Make UK, who represent British manufacturers, say steel exports would be “severely disrupted” by ‘no deal’.

The only view on Brexit with a proven Parliamentary majority – and support from MPs of all parties, except the DUP – is for preventing Britain crashing out of the EU with ‘no deal’ at the end of March. For months, Labour has led these arguments, warned about the risks and pressed consistently for votes.

This week the Prime Minister was forced to concede the following steps:

  • The Commons will vote again to accept or reject the Government’s Brexit deal by 12 March
  • If the Government loses, on 13 March the Commons will vote on whether or not it backs Brexit with ‘no deal’
  • If the Commons votes to prevent a ‘no deal’ Brexit, on 14 March the Government will propose to ask the EU to agree to delay the Brexit date ‘for a limited period’ if the Commons backs this move.

This is a big step in forcing the Prime Minister to accept she must give Parliament more control to avoid ‘no deal’ on 29 March but leaves Parliament no closer to getting a Brexit deal agreed. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister ‘running down the clock’ makes the options more limited, including the time to get necessary legislation done for the Brexit date.

Labour’s pledge since the Referendum vote in 2016 – and at the 2017 election – has been to respect the Referendum result and work for a better ‘jobs-first’ Brexit deal than the Tories plan. If Theresa May were willing to shift the outlines of the Brexit deal, for instance to include a permanent customs union as Labour has argued, then this is likely to:

  • Draw broad support from the cross-party centre ground in Parliament, rather than the Tory hardliners and DUP
  • Reboot EU negotiations as the chief negotiator has said they’d respond ‘…immediately and favourably’
  • Go a long way to remove the risk of a hard border in Northern Ireland and ensure barriers-free trade continues, especially for our manufacturers – with backing from both trade unions and business.

This week in the Commons votes we tried to get the Government to accept this approach but Tory and DUP MPs voted it down.

Our Labour Brexit plan continues to be a sensible and viable solution if the Government fails again to get Commons backing for its deal at the next vote, so we’ll keep pressing this as our first priority in the Brexit debate.

However, we’ve also said if Brexit looms with ‘no deal’ or a damaging and badly-negotiated Tory deal we’d keep all options open, including a public vote (further referendum). So with still no deal agreed 23 months after the start of Brexit negotiations and with just one month to go before the end, Labour confirmed this week we’d support or table an amendment in favour of a public vote in order to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit when the Commons next gets to vote on the Government’s deal. It will be tough to win, as there’s little support among Tory MPs and no majority in Parliament.

If the Government’s deal is defeated again by 12 March, this will be a further huge failure on the Government’s central duty, to negotiate a good Brexit deal for Britain. And if a ‘no deal’ Brexit is rejected on 13 March, then one viable option to break the impasse is a General Election to give people the chance to change both the plan for Brexit and the team in charge. In the face of continuing chaos and the huge challenges, not just to see Brexit through but to bring the country together again and deal with the deep problems people face, I expect this case to grow stronger.

With less than a month to go before the planned Brexit date on 29 March, the continuing divisions and dysfunction in Government mean Parliament – and the country – remain in deadlock. Nevertheless, Labour will continue to set out an alternative on Brexit, as well as campaigning for the change Britain so badly needs on concerns from healthcare to housing, which are being totally neglected by the Tories.