Keir Starmer must not be allowed to ‘fence sit’ on the big issue of the day.
The leader of the opposition must stand up not only for the 48% who voted Remain but the overwhelming majority of voters and MPs (including most Labour members and voters) who opposed a no-deal or bad deal, the very outcome the country now faces.
He must discover (or re-discover) his voice on Europe and not be persuaded to lead his MPs into the abstention lobby. This would leave him open to the charge of ‘fence sitting’ a charge that was levied at his predecessor, with damaging electoral consequences.
Instead Labour should table an amendment and insert a criteria by which the UK’s performance post any EU trade deal would be independently assessed against the EU’s four major states – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – on the following tests: Growth, employment, cost of living, environmental and food safety standards, citizens rights – including workplace rights and racial and national cohesion – and (for the UK and Ireland only) adherence to Good Friday agreement.
Where, over a time period of five years or the lifetime of a government, the balance of these tests demonstrates the UK’s poorer performance against its European peers, Labour would pledge to renegotiate the trade treaty with a view to achieving closer alignment with the EU, including the options of a customs union or ‘Norway style’ single market.
Alastair Campbell and Denis MacShane (“Don’t fall into the Tories’ Brexit Trap, Keir”, “A Vote that would never be forgiven”, TNE #221) offer sage advice to Labour on the matter of a parliamentary vote on an EU trade deal: make the Tories own Brexit. Regrettably, the die has already been cast. The Act authorising the 2016 EU referendum had cross-party support, effectively saddling parliament and the nation as a whole, rather than one political party, with blame for whatever might follow.
When a government puts forward a proposal in parliament the opposition can surely just put forward its own proposal in an amendment. For any Brexit approval motion by the government the amendment would oblige the government to request the two extra years of transition available under its own signed deal and mandate negotiation during that time of UK membership of the EU customs union.
The argument in favour of the amendment is a.) the closest to what was actually promised by the Leave side in 2016 and thus the only mandate the government has from the referendum b.) the best available compromise between the 50% of the country in favour of full membership and those who voted Leave and c.) the least damaging way forward to the UK economy at this time of extreme economic difficulty.
They can then vote for their own amendment and leave the Conservatives to vote against it and in favour of their own deal (or WTO non-deal) and thus take full and sole responsibility?
If Boris Johnson does not get a deal, then Keir Starmer should put forward a proposal in the Commons to vote against a no-deal outcome and force our reckless prime minister back to negotiate an acceptable deal. It is certain that the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Green Party and a significant number of Conservative MPs who are not Brexiteers would vote for this and hopefully inflict a significant defeat on Boris Johnson. He could then be forced to seek an extension to give him time to negotiate a deal which is acceptable to parliament.
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