The government’s efforts to palm off responsibility over its own leaked Brexit analysis is a common trait, writes Phil Wilson MP
Steve Baker, the Brexit minister, is regarded as something of a rising star in the Conservative party. Smooth, articulate and above all a hardcore Brexiter, he is supposedly set for great things.
Yesterday afternoon, at the despatch box, he managed to combine all these qualities with another – the ability to effortlessly pass on the blame to somebody else. In fact, everybody else: confronted with the leak of his own department’s analysis of the impact of Brexit he went round the houses. He blamed 2016’s ‘Remain’ campaigners (which, let us not forget, includes the prime minister), his civil servants, Labour members of parliament, Treasury forecasters and then economists in general for this bad news.
This childlike performance – blaming it on the ‘big boys’ – is becoming all too familiar in the Brexit debate. As the evidence mounts about the costs and risks of a hard Brexit, the need for its advocates to find scapegoats is growing. Because the one thing that they will refuse to contemplate is telling the truth: namely that they think the economic cost of leaving the European Union is, for them, a price worth paying in fulfilment of their nationalist vision of a Britain alone.
For Labour, though, that should never be acceptable. Because the working people our party is meant to represent will be the ones paying the highest price. The leafier parts of Surrey might catch an economic chill from a hard Brexit, but in some parts of Britain the result could be full blown Brexit flu.
In fact, the impact will be felt much further than in the north, or the midlands, even though are they likely to be hit the hardest.
Even London, with its concentration of export-orientated retail and tourism jobs would suffer if we crash out of the single market and customs union.
If we cannot stop Brexit the very least we can do is minimise the damage done. That is why we need Labour to commit, at the minimum, to staying in the single market and customs union. The leaks today suggested that leaving both would cost the economy four times as much economic growth as staying yet, for reasons which increasingly defy comprehension, Labour remain wedded to the idea that we need to execute a hard Brexit and end up outside both safety nets.
While we are lumbered with this position the claims of a fundamental difference between our policy and that of the Tories is, frankly, lacking in credibility. We may not share their ideological affinity for nationalist politics, but outside a politics seminar, the difference looks slight.
And, in the year that marks the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, one of the pinnacles of Labour’s years in office, it is also playing with fire in Ireland. And for what? If voters care more about Brexit than the way the National Health Service is suffering under the Tories it is difficult to imagine they are ever likely to vote Labour. In contrast, warning people that leaving the single market could make the NHS’s crisis worse by entrenching austerity has the merit of being true.
The decision to hug the Tories close on Brexit might have made sense once, but its political utility is long since exhausted. Time now to break free and speak out from a clear Labour perspective.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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