Exit strategy deadlock

There are warnings about the chaos a ‘no-deal’ Brexit will cause.
There are warnings about the chaos a ‘no-deal’ Brexit will cause.

Member of the select committee for Exiting the EU and Labour MP for Feltham and Heston

IN A recent blog in the Huffington Post, I laid out the urgency of ruling out ‘no deal’ because of the economic and social damage it will do as our country is plunged into unprecedented and self-inflicted disruption.

Brexit was never going to be straightforward. Our supply chains are deeply embedded. Our food mutually sourced. Our medicines developed and regulated together. Our living standards as a continent and our commitment to the wellbeing of each other’s nations help raise the bar across the world.

As British citizens, we are also European Union citizens with the many rights that brings, rights that will soon end. Our young people will have fewer rights of work and study than their peers across 27 EU nations, the same people with whom they will compete for employment in the future.

The prime minister could have handled this all so differently. Instead, for two years, she has played – as it has recently been put – to “the bad boys at the back of the class”. With eight weeks to Brexit, what we need is far less populism and far more honesty about the complexities of Brexit.

In recent public information events in my constituency, I have been laying out the key issues – the Northern Ireland (NI) backstop and its importance legally to ensure we meet our responsibilities under the international treaty termed the Good Friday Agreement; a Customs Union and enabling frictionless trade; and greater controls over freedom of movement. They have been important events, attended by those who voted leave and remain, in allowing for dialogue and for people to ask questions of MPs and each other about what they are following in the media.

People may not have changed their minds, but they have felt more informed, appreciating why we have an impasse and why politicians are not playing games. Behind what seem like endless parliamentary debates, we are simply doing our job. We are holding the government’s plans up to scrutiny and challenging them. And when people say to me that they are fed up and want us to get on with it, I tell them that boredom is not the way we should make decisions about our country’s future.

When people decide to move house, they get a survey done on the new property and act on that information, particularly if it highlights structural risks. They don’t purchase until they are satisfied that the issues have been addressed.

If we can do that for a home, we ought to do it for our country. That’s what impact assessments and what scrutiny are for. And that’s why the work of our cross-party select committee for Exiting the EU, on which I sit, is doing such vital work.

But we also can’t afford to leave at any cost, and unless the prime minister shows that she has done the equivalent of a survey (she has yet to publish an economic impact assessment of her own deal) or indeed acted on the risks flagged, she won’t get her deal through parliament.

We cannot and must not deny the reasons that people voted to leave – primarily immigration and sovereignty. Parliament must also look deeper at what other policy responses should be. This is why understanding the causes of Brexit will be the subject of an event in parliament on February 25, led by the new Tribune group of Labour MPs.

The price we are already paying is clear. A new survey this week from Deloitte shows that companies are scaling back spending and hiring plans more ferociously than at any time for nine years. And reports suggest that plans are being drawn up to evacuate the royals in the event of any Brexit riots. We have to ask what we have become and stop pitting citizen against citizen or parliament against the country in our dialogue and debate.

Two weeks ago, after the biggest government defeat in history, the prime minister said, “The government will approach meetings with parliamentarians in a constructive spirit.” In reality, she has only reached out to her own party. The recent Brady amendment supported by the Tories to seek “alternative arrangements” to the backstop was challenged by MPs on the government’s own side as little more than displacement tactics. She has done little more than buy time and will come back to parliament for a vote next Wednesday (13).

Theresa May had 24 months to agree a deal with the EU, but took 22 months to bring her deal to parliament. Since she lost the vote, nothing has changed. To meaningfully engage, she must be prepared to change her own – which are not the country’s – red lines to break the deadlock about how we move forward. Within the strength of views held, parliament is inherently pragmatic. I have argued we will need to move towards a deal that is EEA based and with a Customs Union, and that whatever deal is agreed by Parliament should be put back to the British people for the final choice.

One thing is certain. Labour does not accept the false choice between the prime minister’s bad deal and no deal. Things are a mess not just because of Brexit but because of the government’s handling of Brexit. We need a serious shift and more mature debate going forward, which Theresa May has a responsibility to lead. That’s the only way to bring parliament and the country together.