People looking on at the current crisis in Parliament will be appalled, and understandably so. The situation could not be more serious. After three days of debate on her Brexit deal, knowing she faced defeat, the Prime Minister pulled last Tuesday’s promised vote and stopped further discussion on her plans. Then her own MPs turned on her, with a third saying she should be sacked.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for her, but all the problems she faces are of her making. Not so long ago she was endlessly repeating the mantra that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. Now she says we should accept her bad deal, which will shrink the economy and cut jobs by almost 4%, because the alternative is the disaster of crashing out of without a deal.
She’s right that ‘no deal’ would be the worst outcome of all, as Labour has been saying for the past two years. Without any agreement our borders would freeze and, to be ready, the Government have asked companies to stockpile food and medicine. They’re now advising people not to plan to travel abroad after exit day, 29th March, next year.
There are clearly differences of opinion in Parliament on Brexit, not least because we’re representative of the divisions in the country that elected us, but there’s overwhelming agreement that we cannot allow ‘no deal’ to happen. We won’t be blackmailed into the ‘Hobson’s choice’ of Theresa May’s deal or no deal though. The country deserves better than being told to like it or lump it.
I made that point when I closed the first day of the debate which Theresa May had opened just a fortnight ago. Labour campaigned to remain in the European Union because we thought it was in the best interests of the country and of the continent that we share. But we accepted that we lost the referendum, and voted to trigger Article 50 to start the negotiations to leave.
Yet the past two years have been wasted. The negotiations with the EU have taken second place to those between the warring factions in the Conservative Party — and the country is facing the consequences as uncertainty damages the economy.
But it didn’t have to be this way.
At the start of the negotiations, we urged the Prime Minister to reach out to the majority in Parliament and the country. We urged her to acknowledge that people had voted to leave, but by a painfully close margin; that it was a mandate to end our membership of the EU, but not to rupture the relationship with our closest neighbours, our main trading partner and our key allies.
If she had said that she would seek a deal that reflected that position — in a customs union, close to the single market, and in the agencies and partnerships that we have built together over 45 years—she could have secured an overwhelming majority in Parliament, and she could have united the country that was so deeply divided by the referendum.
Instead, she let the demands of what her Chancellor describes as the Conservative “Brexit extremists” shape her agenda. She set her red lines and she boxed herself in, and the result is a deal that pleases nobody, neither those Remain nor Leave voters.
As a Shadow Brexit Minister I was closely involved in drawing up the six tests against which Labour said that we would measure the deal. The tests were shaped by the objectives that the Government set itself and which the Prime Minister said she was determined to meet. Having now looked at the deal, we’re clear that it fails and we will vote against it.
Labour has always been clear that we respect the result of the referendum, but people voted to get out, not to lose out. We will not vote to make people poorer. Theresa May has now said the vote will be on 14th January, leaving very little time to the scheduled exit day. She is running down the clock to bounce Parliament into a ‘take it or leave it’ choice on her deal. But it won’t work and it seems certain that the Government face defeat.
So what happens then?
When governments can no longer govern, they should go. That’s why we will call for a General Election. But if the Tories fear facing the country and block the move, we will look at all other options, including a public vote.
We won’t allow the British people to pay the price of the Tory civil war.