It’s time for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to show true leadership, put people first and back remaining in the single market, says JOHN LEHAL
Considering the overriding imperative to maintain legal continuity post-Brexit, and with less than 10 months to go until Brexit day, it is staggering the government has lost yet another four weeks waiting to bring the amended EU Withdrawal Bill back to the Commons.
But what’s more shocking is the utter contempt the government has again shown towards Parliament. It’s a scandal that 650 MPs will have just one day to consider and vote on the 15 amendments, to what is a mammoth constitutional bill. Taking back control it is not.
It’s a strategic error on the part of the government to rush through in 12 hours issues the Lords painstakingly considered for over four months. The passage of any legislation is about revising, improving, and enhancing. To do that you need reasoning, arguing and concessions in debates and delegations. Ministers and their bill teams clarify while MPs consider. Suppressing debate can only mean already irascible MPs will start Tuesday dissatisfied as the legislation is needlessly railroaded. Be ready for major skirmishes.
So the question is, with such a fragile majority, how do we secure a softer Brexit? Or put differently, what are the key amendments that will ensure Stephen Hammond, Antoinette Sandbach, Heidi Allen and Nicky Morgan join Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs in the division lobbies?
Once we’ve lost the handful of hardened Labour Leavers, we’re talking about 12 to 15 Conservative MPs to secure a watering down of the government’s Brexit red lines. These MPs won’t vote against the government on all 15 amendments, but some are ready to rebel.
Lord Kerr’s amendment on remaining in the Customs Union secured a resounding victory and marked the first Lords defeat for the government on the legislation. A host of former Conservative ministers including Lords Patten, Heseltine and Willetts backed the amendment. Labour’s evolving position on continued membership of a customs union means this will be easy for their whips.
For the government to lose this would inflict major damage to the PM and the European Reform Group evangelists in equal measure. Needlessly self-inflicted damage to needlessly self-inflicted red lines. Lose this and Tuesday has got off to a very shaky start for the government, but a sensible Brexit is looking plausible.
The Lords debate on Chris Patten’s amendment was a powerful reminder of how a fragile Northern Ireland teeters on the brink. His amendment ensures any deal must uphold the Good Friday Agreement and prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Pragmatic Tory MPs don’t need to look far to see that virtual borders, technical solutions, and max fac options are indeed deluded ‘blue skies thinking’. Their fear of a return to the feuds and animosities that defined the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s mean this too is looks a likely win for Parliament’s soft Brexit majority.
The amendment on the meaningful vote could again unite the 12 Tories who supported Dominic Grieve last December. The Lords amendment now goes further, requiring Parliament to approve the final agreement and transition deal before the European Parliament and handing power to Parliament to decide the deal should the government lose. Again this will be tight but possible.
Which takes us into the fourth, and what is the most significant amendment. Continued EEA membership is crucial to avoid the Hard Brexit the government seems intent on imposing.
If Labour is serious about a jobs-first Brexit, and its promise to deliver ‘the exact same benefits’ of the Single Market, then Labour’s leadership has to follow the overwhelming consensus in the membership. Any continuation of the Customs Union must include a continuation in the EEA or its equivalent. To leave the Single Market without EEA access would fundamentally hit the service sector representing 80% of our trade. Not only is this a political opportunity, it makes total economic sense.
Labour has a week to finish what it started and put continued Single Market access back on the negotiating table. Conservative MPs briefed last month that they have the numbers – rational backbenchers, Scottish Tories and former ministers are ready to support.Just imagine the consequences if they were let down by a timid Labour frontbench. So here it is – the opportunity for Labour to show true leadership, to put people first and to step up to deliver the sensible Brexit business, employees and trade unions are united behind. Only Labour can stop the government taking the UK over a cliff edge and causing the untold damage that will result from crashing out of the Single Market.
We have always been aware of the silent Commons majority for a soft Brexit, and it’s time for them to assert themselves to save our jobs, economy and public services. It’s time for Conservative backbenchers and Labour frontbenchers to lead.
John Lehal is a business and voluntary sector adviser and serves on the Board of the Labour Campaign for the Single Market @JohnLehal