‘Brexit means parliament’ at least according to the High Court’s judgment. Cause for two cheers for us Remainers. Why not three cheers? This court judgment eases one headache but creates many more. It could also conceivably lead to a Labour wipeout. The judgment says that parliament must pass an act allowing the government to trigger European Union withdrawal. This poses constitutional, legal and political problems for Labour.
Constitutionally, the court held (and both parties agreed) that the referendum was merely advisory. Could it be ignored? Legally yes, but politically no. There is no doubt that simply ignoring the referendum result would trigger a revolt by many who voted Brexit. However, Brexit like any journey needs a departure and destination. The referendum says we should leave the EU, but not the destination. Do the public want hard Brexit, soft Brexit, £350m NHS Brexit? What if there is no majority consensus? What happens if the public majority have changed their mind and, as some polls show, now want to remain in the EU? In a referendum the voters do not get to change their mind. Is parliament bound to enact a process it feels is damaging, especially if the public have changed their mind? An unprecedented conundrum faces us.
If parliament, permits Brexit, but mandates a certain Brexit, does that bind the government’s hands? Possibly not, as Article 50 merely starts negotiation of the terms of the United Kingdom’ exit from the EU – UK based EU regulators, for example. Negotiating a post Brexit trade deal is likely to take many more years and we probably could not even start negotiations until after the UK has left the EU. Lawyers say an interim deal needs to be negotiated alongside the Article 50 process. Our parliamentarians have a impossibly difficult task ahead.
The biggest problem for Labour is political. If Labour stalls or rejects Article 50 in parliament, we stand to be slaughtered in our heartland northern seats, many of which voted a majority Leave. If we simply permit Brexit then our London and big city Remain voters will feel betrayed. It is difficult not to annoy one half of the Labour broad church. Ukip stand ready to call betrayal in our coalfield communities, and the Liberal Democrats are limbering up to be the Remainer-at-all-costs party.
Have we not got until 2020 before dealing with the electoral effects of our stance? Probably not now. The government has lost control of Brexit, and if parliament plays hard ball, the temptation for Theresa May to call a general election would be irresistible. Previously worries about the economy meant Tory high command didn’t want an early general election. However the economy is holding up ok, for now. In a few years the pound’s fall will have caused unpopular price rises. Labour have promised to assist in calling an early general election despite the fact that our polling shows the party at historically low levels of support and our leader significantly less popular than Theresa May. We stand to lose huge numbers of MPs, and even Owen Jones is sounding worried.
What to do? No easy answer is obvious but I would try this. First, Labour should permit Article 50 to be invoked, but mandate a government negotiating position to protect environmental standards, single market access, workers rights, criminal arrest warrants, and asylum co-operation. Second, we should legislate that at the expiry of the Article 50 negotiation (no later), the public should be asked again in a referendum if they want the negotiated Brexit outcome, or if the UK should revoke its Article 50 notice and stay in the EU. Thus Labour would abide by the last EU referendum, but also allow those who feel misled to express their change on mind. Put simply, it allows the departure, but allows the public the final say on the destination. Brexit destination could lead us back to the EU or to the negotiated outcome – whichever the public choose. If the Lib Dems support this too, all the better.
It is not a perfect solution. We would probably only see the interim trade deal by the second referendum. Any final trade deal would be years away. However the fog of uncertainty would be partly cleared allowing the public a better informed decision on the future. If we did rejoin the EU, relations would hardly be cozy with the other 27. However, Germany needs the UK to override French protectionism. The Finns want our support in EU spending decisions. Even where our veto does not apply, with qualified majority voting, issue by issue alliances swiftly supersede historic grumbles.
The Labour broad church needs to hold together, and to grow if we are not to be in opposition for a long time. Brexit could bind together our vote or cause it to fracture. This is perhaps the biggest decision for our party and we may only have until next May to persuade the public we have the right solution on this issue. Already our start has been shaky but there is time to seize the day. Progress could and should lead this debate as the mainstream pro-Remain voice in the party. This campaign should help reinvigorate the Remain majority in our party who have been despondent since the vote, and drive a wedge into the fissures in the Tory party.
Paul Brant is a candidate in councillors’ section in the Progress strategy board elections. He tweets at @PaulDBrant
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