Theresa May fuelled a hard-right Brexit.. now Labour needs to commit to stopping it

PUBLISHED: 00:01 25 January 2018

David Miliband, CEO and president of the International Rescue Committee

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Former Labour Foreign Secretary DAVID MILIBAND intervenes on Brexit, blasting both Labour and the Tories and calling on Jeremy Corbyn to consider committing to giving voters the final say

It is strange to watch the unfolding trauma of Brexit from abroad. As the European economy gathers pace, as America abdicates global responsibility, as the UK promises “regulatory alignment” for Northern Ireland, Brexit becomes increasingly inexplicable to foreign audiences. When I explain that former Remainers, like William Hague or the new Tory chairman Brandon Lewis, argue that they would vote to leave in a new referendum because it isn’t seemly for a country to be seen to change its mind, people think we have lost our bearings.

In December, amidst turmoil over the Irish and Northern Irish border, the greatest danger for Britain was tumbling into Brexit.

The Labour leadership blamed the incompetence of the government for the near breakdown of the UK/EU talks. And there were tactical blunders by the government in handling the issue (and handling the DUP), but in fact the negotiating mangle was integral to Brexit not incidental to it.

The problems over the Irish border were not just the result of ministerial mishaps, but instead reflected the incompatible commitments to leave the customs union yet avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, or between Ireland and the UK. I often see references to these problems being solved in December. In fact they were fudged.

The fudge served its purpose, allowing the talking to continue about a ‘transitional period’ after Britain leaves the EU but before it leaves its rules and regulations, and about the terms of the future relationship (the details to be discussed after we have left).

Today there is a new danger. It is not tumbling into Brexit but sleepwalking to it, blinkered to the bad options that will lie ahead.

The transitional period, while necessary, offers false comfort. It delays the choices but does not remove them. Slow Brexit does not mean soft Brexit.

The Prime Minister says the transition is necessary for “implementation”. But implementation of what? The Government cannot tell us, because they are divided, and because they have made undeliverable and incompatible commitments.

The sleepwalk is not only caused by the transition. There is the numbing complexity of some of the practicalities which lie ahead (and which will take far longer than a transitional period of March 2019 to December 2020). There is the surging global economy which has prevented the British economic engine from going into reverse. But there is also the fact that both the EU and the Brexiteers are happy to run down the clock.

The EU has no cause to rush to decisions – in fact the rules prevent this – since with every day that passes Britain takes on more and more of the Brexit risk. With a Canadian-style deal on trade in goods (in which the continent has a healthy surplus with the UK) a secure fall-back, there is no particular reason for Europe to push Britain to the brink.

For Brexiteers, all that matters is getting out in March 2019. They have stopped complaining about the costs of divorce, abandoned claims that free trade deals will be ready for signature on day one, even accepted a transitional period in which the European Court of Justice and freedom of movement continue. All that matters is getting to the departure date.

No wonder the CBI were this week sounding the alarm about the Government’s approach. They can see the danger to business from the uncertainties that are built into the current approach. But the danger of sleepwalking to Brexit is greatest for Labour and Labour voters.

The party’s position is to say that they wish we had not decided to leave, but that since we have we should negotiate to keep all of the benefits of membership after we depart. As President Macron has, gently but clearly, pointed out, this is not on offer. We can decide to leave, and get worse terms for our economic and political relationships than at present, or change our minds to preserve the privileges. But what we cannot do is leave and hold onto the advantages of membership.

It is said that Jeremy Corbyn has changed in a fundamental respect since this time last year: he now believes he can and will be Prime Minister. But if so then his current position on Brexit is a residue, designed for opposition not for government

Brexit is not just another policy issue, like health or transport. It is the foundation of other policy options, because it holds the key to the economic foundations underpinning the tax and spending choices of a future Labour government, never mind the regulatory pressures and options it will face.

In the EU, we play on the level playing field of European regulation, benefit from European clout in negotiations with third countries, assure for employees their rights at work and for the environment protection from damage. The playing field outside the EU is not level. We will be a ‘third country’ and treated as such. The pressure will be to diminish social, environmental and consumer protections to make up for the competitive disadvantages of being outside the EU. The model is not Singapore. It is more like South Carolina or Texas. The pressure is to lower taxes and cut regulation, not tackle inequality as Labour rightly promises to do.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones has said that people suffering from the bedroom tax don’t care about Brexit. But Britain’s capacity to fund removal of the bedroom tax, never mind restore its public services and provide an alternative to austerity, depends on a social and economic model that Brexit fundamentally undermines. The Financial Times says that Brexit is already costing the British economy £350m a week.

Here the global perspective is important again. It is not just liberal democracy that is on the run from what former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers calls “nativism, nationalism and negativism”. So is the social and environmental compact that social democracy represents. To protect that model, we do ourselves or those we represent no favours by pretending that Brexit is irrelevant to that task. International cooperation is core to the protection of social and environmental standards. The Age of Trump makes this ever more important.

Three points therefore become clear. First, it is essential that all those sceptical of Brexit should want maximum progress in the negotiations. We should be urging the negotiators to get to grips with the existential questions that Brexit poses for many aspects of British social and economic life. The worst thing would be for these to be punted into the discussions after we have left.

The ‘Heads of Agreement’ that will be negotiated between now and October needs to spell out in hard-headed terms what Brexit means.

Second, Labour needs to make the equality case for the single market and the customs union. MPs like Alison McGovern and Heidi Alexander have shown a lead here. These institutions are indeed bulwarks against a race to the bottom. Freedom from their constraints will not be the freedom to boost social and environmental standards. It will be license to import chlorinated chicken and reduce employee rights. It will be the ultimate freedom to be unequal that Sir Keith Joseph dreamed of when he laid out the tenets of what would become Thatcherism in the mid 1970s.

Third, Labour needs to prepare for a life-changing question next autumn: will it vote to give a license for a Conservative Brexit, or will it insist that the voters be given a final say on the Brexit deal? Leave, and we take our chances on the choppy, laissez-faire open seas. Far from freeing ourselves to intervene, subsidise and reform, we will neuter our ability to do so.

To govern is to choose, but opposition takes choices too, when it aspires to govern. The debate, or lack of it, about Article 50 last year provides a telling warning.

When we put the Lisbon Treaty through Parliament in 2007/8, and for the first time made provision for countries to leave the EU via Article 50, we never in our wildest dreams thought that a country would notify an intention to leave without first figuring out what it wanted instead.

Yet this is what the government did last year. The Labour leadership supported it.

The damage to Britain’s negotiating position from the premature triggering of Article 50 was significant. Under the guise of fulfilling the wish of the people, it gave fuel to a hard right definition of Brexit, set out in Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech of January 2016, with Britain out of the single market and the customs union. History should not be allowed to repeat itself.

David Miliband (@dmiliband) is president of the New York-based International Rescue Committee. He recently published Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of our Time. He writes here in a personal capacity

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