In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, you could be forgiven for thinking that Conservative party divisions on Europe had disappeared. Theresa May took advantage of this brief truce and appointed a cabinet of prominent Leavers and Remainers. However, it seems that the cracks are starting to surface once again.
With Eurosceptic Tories now occupying the most senior positions in government, they seem intent on aiming for a hard Brexit: an immediate departure from the European Union, with little consideration for workers’ rights, environmental protection or indeed the impact on the economy. For instance, the new secretary of state for international trade recently visited the United States to push for the start of bilateral trade talks. Liam Fox told our American friends that the United Kingdom will not be part of the European Customs Union and will trade with the EU under World Trade Organisation rules. He was promptly reprimanded and corrected by Downing Street. May has not yet made up her mind about such vital issues. Falling back on the WTO would be a hammer-blow for the British economy, and Fox’s strategy would ruin vital export industries.
With such conflicting views and uncertainty about the government’s position, it is extraordinary that it has taken the prime minister two months since the referendum to hold a discussion with her cabinet on the UK’s negotiating position with the EU.
Our relationship with the EU and our place in this rapidly changing world is the defining issue of our age. It will shape our politics, economy and society for years and decades to come. Yet the Tories are not treating it with the urgency or seriousness it requires. The prime minister must update parliament when it returns from recess on her direction of travel in the negotiating process.
Downing Street has made clear that any deal must restrict free movement. Labour must accept this and listen to the message that voters sent us during the referendum about immigration. Indeed, research has shown that bringing down the level of immigration was a concern that both Leave and Remain voters shared.
So the UK’s negotiating position must include an end to the free movement of people. This means securing restrictions and the best possible economic deal. Admittedly this will not be as good as the status quo but unfortunately we lost that argument during the referendum. It is evident that people’s concerns about immigration trump worries about the economic cost of leaving.
The prime minister has insisted that parliament will not get a vote on the decision to invoke Article 50, which triggers the formal process of withdrawal from the EU. Labour must argue that Britain’s negotiating stance should not solely be the preserve of the government. After all, whatever the outcome, it will endure for generations to come and affect all different parts of the UK – many of which are not represented by the Conservatives. The voice of different people across the country must be heard. Parliament must therefore have a say on this vital issue and should debate the broad parameters and principles of the British strategy. This should not be an attempt to block the process of leaving the EU. We should accept the result of the referendum and focus on getting the best deal for our constituents.
Labour has not yet found its voice on Brexit. We are at risk of becoming worryingly irrelevant. We need much stronger leadership. Whether from the frontbenches or backbenches, Labour must assert itself. The referendum was not only a verdict on the EU, but on globalisation and on politicians’ failure to compensate those communities who have lost out. We must now forcefully represent the interests of our communities, putting their concerns front and centre in the negotiation process. Beyond that, Labour must set out its alternative progressive vision for a post-Brexit Britain.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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