Government is gridlocked. Parliament is struggling to find common ground. Business is beset by the risks. And people are getting anxious and angry.
The public rightly expected Britain to leave the EU on 29 March. But the Government have failed over two years to negotiate a good enough Brexit deal to win public or Parliamentary support. While most of us want to see a rapid resolution to this deadlock, any Brexit agreement will be the basis of our relationship with Europe for a generation which is why so few MPs are prepared to wave through Theresa May’s bad Brexit deal.
Instead, it is now 10 days to the new Brexit date – 12 April – set by the EU after Theresa May last week failed for a third time to get Commons agreement to the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement. 34 Tory MPs, and all 10 DUP MPs as the Conservative’s formal Government partners, voted down the deal.
The Prime Minister pulled the Commons vote on her deal in December because she knew it faced rejection. But since then, in more than three months, nothing has changed – not one word in the 600-plus pages of the Withdrawal Agreement or the 26 pages of the Political Declaration. At no stage over the last two years has the Prime Minister tried to build a consensus or been willing to shift the terms of the Brexit agreement, for instance to include a permanent customs union as Labour has argued for months.
This is why the Government have failed the country on Brexit; and why Parliament – led by Labour – now has to try to help find a way through this Conservative-created crisis.
Labour has tried to persuade the Government that there is a basis for a better Brexit deal – with a customs union as the starting point – which could be agreed with the EU and could command cross-party support. This would better reflect the many in the country who have concerns about us cutting ties completely with the EU. The Commons votes yesterday show there would be a substantial majority for a Brexit with a continuing close trading relationship with Europe – if the Government would support it.
Last week when the Commons held a series of votes to try to establish a clear indication of the scale of support for a range of proposals, I:
- Backed the consistent approach Labour has taken to a better Brexit deal
- Supported a customs union, which goes a long way to deal with the need for continued barrier-free trade and the risk of border controls in Northern Ireland
- Supported a proposal to put a Government Brexit deal to a public referendum for confirmation, as one option that could be needed to break the deadlock
- Refused to back a plan to give up on Brexit by ‘revoking’ the whole negotiation process.
Then, last Friday, the Prime Minister tried to separate her Withdrawal Agreement from the Political Declaration (which sets out the framework for our future relationship with the EU). In other words, she was asking Parliament to approve the terms for Britain to leave the EU with no idea where we will end up – the ultimate ‘blind Brexit’. Having twice rejected the combination deal as falling well short of what Britain needs to safeguard jobs, rights and standards we were now being asked as MPs to give the Government a completely blank cheque and free hand for future negotiations over Britain’s permanent trade, security, immigration, healthcare, customs and other relations with the EU. With almost all other Labour MPs – and with MPs of every other Party – I voted down this Government move.
Last night the Commons had another go at mapping out the areas on which there could be majority cross-party support for Brexit, as an alternative to the Government’s three-times rejected deal. As Labour MPs, we took a flexible approach to these votes and were willing in these circumstances to support proposals which reflect aspects of our Labour Brexit plan. I therefore supported separate plans for a customs union, continued single market membership and a confirmation public referendum.
This was a pragmatic attempt by Parliament to try to find common ground, which was undermined by Conservative MPs who overwhelmingly voted against all proposals. The plan for a customs union drew most support but even then, only 1 in 8 Tory MPs (37 in total) were able to show a willingness to take steps to break the Brexit gridlock.
In the face of the Government’s failure, Tory MPs are now more interested in the race to replace Theresa May as Party leader than getting a good Brexit deal done for the country. They are too divided, dysfunctional and distracted to do the job of Government. They are failing on Brexit and failing on all the other problems that people know and notice every day – NHS, housing, schools, welfare benefits, decent wages and living standards.
At any other time in our country’s history, when a Government can’t get its business through Parliament and a Prime Minister can’t get support from their own Ministers, then the public would have the chance to pass judgement on the Government and the Parliament in a General Election.
While the Conservatives cling to power, Labour will continue to lead the efforts in Parliament to try to find a way through the mess Theresa May has made of the Brexit negotiations, but in the end a General Election may become the only way of breaking this Brexit impasse. And people certainly deserve the opportunity to elect a fresh Parliament and a new Government.
With best wishes