by BARRY GARDINER
Labour MP for Brent North
TWO years of chaos and incompetence – and still no certainty!
The Withdrawal Agreement was supposed to be concluded this time last year and we had been told that by now there would be clarity on the future Free Trade Agreement between ourselves and the EU.
Instead we have a putative agreement, which most commentators think will not secure enough votes in Parliament, and a scant seven pages of the future policy outline.
It would be tempting to think that after losing two Brexit secretaries in a row, with five front bench ministers resigning and with the No Deal wing of her party trying to secure enough letters to mount a leadership challenge, that things for the prime minister could scarcely get much worse. But that would be to reckon without the five No Deal ministers who actually stayed in her cabinet to try and steer the agreement onto the rocks.
So if the arithmetic does not work out for the prime minister and her agreement cannot secure a majority in the House of Commons, what are the realistic options?
First she can go back to the EU and renegotiate. Of course European leaders are adamant that “This is it!” But as Mandy Rice Davis once infamously remarked: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” If we look back, we see that when France and the Netherlands refused to accept the Lisbon Treaty the Commission simply had to knuckle down to the renegotiations.
The prime minister’s detractors on the right want her to pull out of any customs agreement and not accept a backstop, whilst in the Labour Party we believe that the renegotiation should be to secure a permanent customs union in which the UK would have a say in any future trade agreement with third countries.
So what happens if the prime minister refuses to go back and renegotiate? She could of course call a general election. But she has form in this area! And the last time she did so, she lost even her slim parliamentary majority. I have found it interesting to hear so many cabinet ministers try to persuade their colleagues to support May’s deal telling them: “If you don’t, you are risking Jeremy Corbyn getting into 10 Downing Street”. I am glad to see that they understand the attractiveness of Labour’s policies to the UK electorate. I’m just not sure it is a clever political strategy for them to proclaim it so loudly!
I have always believed that a prime minister is called to form a government on the basis that he or she can command a majority in the House of Commons. If they can no longer do that, then they should move aside in the country’s interest and see if someone else can. It would appear though that this prime minister is determined to cling on even if she cannot secure a majority to pass the most important legislation our parliament has considered in 50 years.
Her rhetoric seems to be that she will insist it is “Either her deal or No Deal”. This is the false choice she wishes to impose upon MPs. It used to be that she said: “No Deal is better than a Bad Deal”. But lately she has changed her tune. Now she is threatening us with No Deal and saying “Any deal is better than No Deal”. No self-respecting MP would vote for something they know to be wrong for the country just because the prime minister threatens to do something worse if we don’t support her. That is not rational politics, it is blackmail. The Labour Party will not be complicit in it. Beyond that, we have not ruled anything out, including a people’s vote.
Labour has proposed a sensible middle way that respects the referendum result and could secure a majority in the House of Commons. After all, it was Dominic Greive and other conservative MPs who tabled amendments in favour of a permanent customs union. The prime minister should accept it and deliver certainty to business and security to Northern Ireland.
It is time to move on and deal with the real day-to-day problems of austerity, our health service, violent crime and our underfunded schools. That is what a Labour government would focus on doing.