31 January 2019

For two years I’ve reported that Brexit overshadows all else in politics; for the last two months it has overwhelmed Parliament’s attention.

Earlier this month I voted – as did almost all Labour MPs – against the Government’s Brexit deal, which had been agreed with the EU over nearly two years. It went down to the biggest defeat for any Government on any issue in Parliament’s history – by 230 votes. It was an historic failure on the Government’s central duty and purpose, to negotiate a good Brexit deal for Britain. This is the failure of the Conservative Party in Government, not just Theresa May’s failure, and a direct result of their deep divisions and dysfunction.

In any previous era such a failure to command the support of Parliament would rightly result in a fresh General Election. And people will have seen the dishonesty of Tory MPs who voted down their Government one night, then protesting their full confidence in that Government the next night, when Labour moved our formal vote of confidence debate.

This week Theresa May has taken as a mandate to re-open EU discussions a Tory/DUP majority of 18 behind a non-binding motion for a non-specific change to the withdrawal agreement which the EU say is non-negotiable. She will then put the deal to the Commons again later this month.

Meanwhile, the public are losing patience with politicians; business, unions and farmers want Parliament to rule out a ‘no deal’ exit; and Government is reduced to organising fake traffic jams in Kent and stockpiling medicines.

No one can confidently calculate what will happen next but the most important developments look set as follows.

The current deal (with any assurances, alterations or addenda) may pass when the Commons votes again. If so, Parliament then needs to scrutinise, debate and pass six major bills – immigration, trade, agriculture, fisheries, healthcare, customs, – and around 600 statutory instruments before 29 March. The Government itself may have to delay the Brexit date to get all this done, though this will need the agreement of all EU27 countries.

The current deal may be defeated again. If so, the Government could:

  • Shift the outlines of the Brexit deal, for instance to include a permanent customs union as Labour has argued, to seek support from the cross-party centre ground rather than the Tory hardliners and DUP
  • Double down and prepare for a ‘no deal’ Brexit at the end of March
  • Push back the Brexit date and simply put off such crunch decisions
  • Call a Second Referendum or General Election to break the impasse.

Because there is such concern and uncertainty, and the Government is in such chaos, Parliament is rightly looking to step in to play a stronger role in directing what happens if the deadlock is not broken.

There has been a Commons majority drawn from all parties (except the DUP) voting twice to prevent Britain crashing out of the EU with ‘no deal’ at the end of March. However, at this point in the Commons this week, other proposals were narrowly voted down for delaying the Brexit date and for MPs rather than Ministers to dictate what business is put before Parliament on Brexit.

In the votes during this week’s big Brexit debate:

  • Labour’s amendment to stop a ‘crash-out’ Brexit and give Parliament a future vote on the main points of our Brexit plan and other options, including a public vote, was defeated by 31 votes
  • Labour’s backing for the backbench cross-party amendment (Yvette Cooper/Nick Boles) to legislate to postpone the Brexit date to prevent a ‘no deal’ Brexit, if no deal has been agreed by the end of February, was defeated by 23 votes
  • Labour’s backing for the backbench cross-party amendment (Caroline Spelman/Jack Dromey) to reject the UK leaving with agreed Brexit deal, was passed by 8 votes.

As the days run down to Brexit date – 55 days from today – I expect the balance of views and votes on all these points will change. I also expect the case for a General Election to grow stronger over the coming weeks, especially if the Government chaos continues, the deal is defeated again, Britain is set to crash out with a ‘no deal’ Brexit or more Ministers resign.

Despite the divisions, chaos and record Commons defeat, the ball is still in the Government’s court. As the Opposition, our priorities remain: to challenge the failings in negotiation and flaws in the deal; and to press for a better Brexit deal that can be negotiated with the EU, pass through Parliament and bring leave and remain voters together. And this week Jeremy Corbyn spelled this out directly in face-to-face discussions with Theresa May.

Best wishes