The government claims that a breakdown of relations with Europe is the result of failing to reach a deal. But parliament can stop that, argues Eloise Todd
Brexit Britain’s politics have become toxic. It is a mark of the government’s failures of leadership that the idea of leaving the European Union without any comprehensive deal covering trade, consumer protection, the environment and defence and security is now taken seriously, as opposed to being dismissed as an extreme idea promoted by the most ideological Brexiteers.
That is why the most critical political objective in the coming months is making sure a meaningful vote in parliament could also be used to reject a no-deal scenario – essentially taking that threat of blackmail out of the hands of government.
First, the government is about to be completely exposed on what failing to agree a Brexit deal would entail. The government has been threatening to leave with ‘no deal’ because they think it is a clever tactical ploy to make any deal they come back with look good by comparison.
But the reality is that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ is a line that simply does not make sense – and what is more, the government knows it. Yet thanks to members of parliament finding the courage to respond to the Brexit mess, the bluster of no deal is about to be exposed – and could derail the government’s ideological Brexit.
The person most to blame for the no deal confusion is Theresa May. Early leaks from the secret Brexit impact assessments show that she and her cabinet are fully aware of the that the damage Brexit could do to the country is enormous. When the country could be £45bn a year worse off due to no deal, the idea that this government could even suggest this as a blackmail threat is an astonishing abdication of duty.
At what point is the lie big enough to warrant the government being called to account?
Second, the threat of no deal has not strengthened her hand in negotiations, but it has instead left her unable to make the necessary compromises to make an exit deal work. It has handed all the authority in her party to a small gang of ideologically-driven anti-European obsessives, while European capitals watch on, wondering why the country of Monty Python’s Black Knight wants to decapitate itself as well as cut off its limbs.
Third, the no deal rhetoric has strengthened the Labour party. The decision to legitimise no deal as an acceptable outcome of the Brexit process has elevated Keir Starmer’s position above all as someone that Tory pro-Europeans can do business with.
His recent announcement that Labour would block any attempts to leave the EU without a deal, echoed by shadow chancellor John McDonnell, are a welcome shift in Labour’s position. Unlike the triggering of article 50, in which Labour played a weak hand badly, now the opposition is rising to its role by asking the right questions of government and giving some signs to those in the country that there are grown-ups in Westminster not hell-bent on Brexit at any cost. It also serves to unify the party – temporarily at least – to challenge the government’s Brexit head on.
Fourth, the extreme Brexiteer threat of leaving the EU with no comprehensive deal in place also puts the government’s lifeline offered by the Democratic Unionist party under severe stress. Of course, the DUP have not been converted to a pro-European position – even if they have dropped some of the more outlandish rhetoric of days gone by – but many of its voters in Northern Ireland, especially those in areas close to the border, could find their lives made a misery by a regime of customs checks and trade restrictions.
Last but not least, flirting with no deal shows exactly the level of contempt with which this government holds the public. The list of things we all take for granted today that could suddenly be at risk from a no deal Brexit is frightening in its scope – all flights to the continent and Ireland could be grounded as the United Kingdom would no longer have any recognised safety standard and regulator, the port of Dover estimates queues could typically tailback 17 miles on the M20, radio-isotopes used to treat cancer could disappear as we lost our ability to import them from the rest of the EU – and the long-term impact could be to turn Britain into the dirty country of Europe as nuclear power is replaced by coal and deregulation makes it easier for polluting technologies to be once again deployed in Britain.
Added to that – if anyone thinks leaving the common agricultural or common fisheries policies will open up a new era of prosperity in our market towns or fishing ports they are in for a rude shock. British trawlers will be able to take up as much fish as British law lets them, and there would no foreign trawlers to worry about. But who is going to buy it? Because tariffs will immediately make British fish some of the most expensive on the European market and farmers could be hit with a double whammy of disappearing financial support and greatly reduced markets as they too are hit by tariffs.
What can be done then, amid this chaos, threat and opportunity? The most important move now for sensible MPs on all sides of the house is to gather behind Dominic Grieve’s amendment to secure a meaningful vote – that to be truly meaningful will ensure that any kind of deal will be able to be rejected.
There is no majority in the country for no deal, there is no majority in parliament for no deal, and there is no European leader wanting no deal.
The extreme Brexiteers’ hand of weak cards is about to be exposed. But until and unless a truly meaningful vote is secured by MPs that buries the nonsensical claim that no deal would be the automatic result of a failure to reach an agreement, that allows MPs to reject a no-deal outcome completely, and puts other options on the table for the UK’s future within or without the EU, then we could crash out through sheer negligence.
There is no other amendment more important to the withdrawal bill than the meaningful vote. A united Labour party and Conservatives of conscience working together to strengthen that provision and vote it through hold the key to the UK’s future. They can provide a real choice on the final deal when it comes to parliament in a year’s time, and history will look kindly upon those that make that meaningful vote happen.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.