Labour must accept the result of the referendum, but it does not have to accept Theresa May’s warped version of Brexit, argues Christabel Cooper
Much of Theresa May’s Brexit speech two weeks ago came as little surprise. The announcement that the United Kingdom would not seek to remain a member of the single market had the same disappointing inevitability as getting a cold shortly after the beginning of winter. What was shocking was the reiteration of her threat to turn Britain into a grotesque giant-sized version of Singapore if we do not come out of the two year negotiation period with the trade deal she wants. Together with the confirmation that parliament will not be given any meaningful way of stopping her, no matter how poor a deal she actually manages to get, this means that the consequences of allowing the unamended article 50 bill to pass are enormous and potentially disastrous.
In the low-tax environment the prime minister threatens, an already underfunded National Health Service will not be able to survive in its current form; the welfare state would crumble. To prevent this from happening, May needs to get a fantasy deal from the European Union which allows for significant control of immigration while cherry-picking the bits of the single market and customs union that she wants. Even if the politics of Europe allowed for such a deal (which they currently do not), setting a two year deadline for concluding it is simply impossible. It took Canada seven years to negotiate a less complex deal with the EU, which was nearly scuppered at the last minute by a regional parliament in Belgium. Neville Chamberlain at least managed to return from Europe with a whole piece of paper in his hand. Theresa May will be able to brandish nothing more than some scrawls on the back of an envelope – and then will offer members of parliament no alternative to voting for it, other than letting the economy plunge off a cliff-edge into World Trade Organisation rules.
As she surveys the current feebleness of the resistance to her plans, the cunning of the prime minister’s apparently nonsensical ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra now becomes clearer. Like Humpty Dumpty in Alice Through the Looking Glass, May has defined Brexit to mean only what she wants it to mean, and anyone who disagrees with her particular hard-line interpretation must therefore be against Brexit itself. It is disappointing that so many people on both sides of the campaign have chosen to let her get away with this.
For example, where are the ‘liberal leavers’ who had insisted at the start of the referendum campaign, that post-Brexit Britain should emulate Norway or Switzerland in accepting the free movement of EU citizens, but who now meekly tow the line that controlling immigration is more important than the health of the economy. Where are the ‘Lexiters’ who believed that Brexit would kick-start the transformation of Britain into an independent socialist state, but should now face up to the fact that without the protections that the EU offered, the creation of a dystopian neo-liberal regime of their worst nightmares is a far more likely outcome.
On the Remain side, the only real criticism for May’s plans tends to come from those who have made little secret of their ultimate desire to see the referendum result reversed. Meanwhile the Remainers who do not want to oppose the result, seem so fearful of being exposed as still having secret pro-European feelings that most of them do not quibble that Brexit must mean Hard Brexit.
Labour must be clear that we accept the result of referendum. We cannot stand on the doorsteps of Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent with the message that Labour MPs are liberal Remoaners who want to overturn a democratic vote because they cannot face a lifetime of weeping into their blue and gold starred flags. Instead we must tell voters that if we oppose the article 50 bill we are not rejecting Brexit itself, but specifically rejecting May’s warped version of Brexit. We must tell them that Labour cannot stand by while the prime minister plays Russian roulette with all the achievements of the 1945 Clement Attlee government. We must tell them that Labour cannot agree to a hastily cobbled together trade deal with the EU, which is highly unlikely to contain any protections for either worker’s rights or worker’s jobs.
Whatever Labour MPs decide to do, the article 50 bill will pass. We should not be opposing it for the pyrrhic satisfaction of being proved right in a few years time. As Conor Pope pointed out recently, political parties get no brownie points for this. But if we are to stand a serious chance of steering Britain away from a disastrous hard Brexit in the next two years, we need to start developing the same clarity of message that our opponents in the United Kingdom Independence party used to turn a niche rightwing preoccupation with leaving the EU into a referendum-winning movement.
It remains to be seen whether the prime minister actually has the nerve to stick to her eccentric negotiating strategy of holding a gun to Britain’s welfare state unless we get something that the Europeans almost certainly cannot give us. But no one else seems prepared to give a voice to the opponents of hard Brexit, it is therefore down to Labour to do so. We should start by voting against this bill.
Christabel Cooper writes a regular column on the Progress website. She tweets at @ChristabelCoops
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