The nightmare of a no-deal Brexit is becoming a reality. It’s vital that pro-Europeans of all parties join forces to stop ministers driving Britain over the cliff, argues Chris Leslie MP
In Florence, Theresa May outlined her view for how Britain should transition away from European Union membership. Taken at her word, the prime minister now wants a two-year period within which we still have market access on current terms, remain within the existing EU legal and regulatory structure, continue to cooperate on security and counter-terrorism and honour our outstanding financial commitments – a parting on amicable terms.
Of course, we should know that nothing can match our existing membership of the single market – it is the most far-reaching comprehensive free trade agreement available between any countries anywhere else in the world. But seeking to retain these benefits during a few years of transition, though not perfect, is a start.
However, May’s worthwhile objectives are not worth the paper they are written on unless we can enshrine them in law. There is nothing to stop backbench Tories from forcing a capitulation – and no guarantee that a more extreme successor (whoever they might be) will honour May’s pledges on transition.
For Britain, this is not good enough – and it should not be good enough for parliament. The amendment which I have drafted alongside Ken Clarke therefore attempts to put the prime minister’s words into the legislation to make sure the government honours them. If she means it, this should not be a big ask, and what is more, we believe strongly that most members in the House of Commons agree with us that a transition period is vital if we are to avert catastrophe. We do still live in a parliamentary democracy, so if such a transition does not appear in the withdrawal agreement, MPs of all parties should demand that the House of Commons be consulted afresh on when and how we leave.
There is a broader worry here about how ministers are attempting to bypass parliament at every stage of the withdrawal process. In its current form, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill bypasses the House of Commons and vests sweeping power in the hands of the prime minister of the day. That would be unacceptable on any issue, but when the consequences are as profound as this, it is unforgivable.
There is a majority in the House of Commons for a common sense, pro-single market approach which saves jobs and averts legal chaos – the only question is whether MPs can set aside rigid party-political practices and make that majority’s voice heard. Now, more than any other moment in recent history, should be the time for parliament to assert itself in the national interest. Indeed, dozens of backbench MPs are now tabling and adding their names to amendments, many of them excellent. Some require Parliament to ratify a new, permanent, treaty before the 1972 European Communities Act can be repealed. Others, including from former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve, seek to retain the charter of fundamental rights, enable legal challenges on grounds of breaching general principles of EU law and give MPs oversight of these ministerial regulation-making powers.
I am deeply concerned that withdrawing from the EU may yet be an unmitigated disaster, but sadly there will be MPs who fail to realise and face up to this. That is why I would prefer to give the final say on whether to proceed with any deal the government reaches to the British public. At present, though, there are too few MPs who share that view. So if we are to leave, parliament should at the very least be putting in place the protections necessary to avoid that catastrophe, get a reasonable deal and salvage what we can of our single market alliances. The clock is ticking.
Chris Leslie is MP for Nottingham East and a member of the International Trade Select Committee. He tweets at @ChrisLeslieMP
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