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16 Apr, 2018

Opposition MPs must ensure there is no fudge

London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg sets out why the Opposition need to ensure that the terms of Brexit are concrete and how the Irish Border issue can help them do so.

Brexit means Brexit. But then, car means car. Yet there is a world of difference between a Bentley and a Trabant.

Why Leavers believe that the terms do not matter

Some of course just fear that they would or might lose another referendum.

Some are sincere in not understanding the point. I am sure that all Leavers knew what they wanted out of Brexit. After all, many are able to tell us exactly what Brexit means. But their versions are not the same. And like all of us they select their friends on the basis that they agree with them. So they and their friends projected similar versions of Brexit onto the Leave campaign and the June result. We all know that there are people who hold radically different views from us. But all of us find it difficult to believe that people who are broadly in the same area as we are nonetheless hold quite different views. And so Leavers feel confirmed in their belief that there is only one Brexit; theirs.

But one of the core reasons why Leavers are willing to go along with whatever Theresa May agrees with the EU is that once we are out of the EU we are out. There is no prospect of early re-entry – the country will not wish to go through such a big upheaval again, and the sense of national humiliation would be too large.

Once out, the field is open. The UK will be in a permanent negotiation with our large neighbour. We can negotiate a distancing as well as a rapprochement. So even if the Framework of Future Relations determines the relationship on Day 1, it can be changed from Day 2.

Theresa May’s aim: party unity

A political declaration made up of meaningless waffle would allow all Conservatives to sign up because it could be interpreted differently. Would we be close or distant? Aligned or free to go our own way? Waffle would let everyone read into the agreement what they wanted.

Nonetheless, in her statement to Parliament on 26 March 2018 following the European Council the Prime Minister said “That is why it is essential that we have clarity about the terms of that relationship when we ask the House to agree the implementation period and the rest of the withdrawal agreement in the autumn.” Further, in response to questions she twice used the phrase “sufficient detail” when describing the level of information to be provided about the future relationship at the time of the Parliamentary vote. (Hansard Cols 524, 535 & 541)

Jeremy Corbyn’s aim: socialism in one state

Waffle would also suit Jeremy Corbyn well. He wishes to build a society outside the EU norm – else why support Brexit. So the less there is in the Framework that would prevent such an outcome the better for him.

Labour forecasts waffle

Amongst Keir Starmer’s arguments against a referendum on the terms has long been that the Framework would not be concrete enough to enable the electorate to take decisions.

In a striking phrase, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry recently called it “a blah blah blah Brexit”, where the government would "continue to kick things down the road".

MPs’ duty

Tony Blair made the same point in his 26 March 2018 speech to Parliament, and drew a clear lesson for MPs:

“As time goes on, the Government will recognise fully that if they put a proposition to Parliament which clearly resolves the Dilemma, and before March 2019, the risk is it will not pass. Either it will mean divergence from Europe in which case, the business community will protest the damage and MPs will take notice of that. Or it will mean alignment with Europe in which case the diehard Brexiteers will cry foul and the British people will wonder why we are leaving.

“So, the Government will turn to fudge.

“They will understand – and the Brexiteers will assist them – that they have somehow to get past March 2019 without a defeat and they can only do that if the terms of the new relationship are sufficiently vague to let the fiction of ‘cakeism’ continue.

“Then once past March 2019 and when we are irreversibly out of Europe, they can negotiate safe in the knowledge that then the issue will be whatever deal they do versus no deal.”

He was very clear on the duty of Opposition MPs:

“It is this strategy that Parliament has a duty to foil. It has demanded a ‘meaningful vote’. The vote is only meaningful if it is on a proposition which allows us to know with precision what our future path looks like before we take it.  

“Exposing the strategy of fudge and preventing it, should be the overriding aim of the Labour Party in Parliament. … it is the duty of Opposition MPs to thwart a strategy designed to place the country in a position where it puts beyond reach of reconsideration a decision of this fundamental importance whose full consequences we do not know.”

He also appealed to Conservative MPs to recognise the importance of giving the people the final say on Brexit on the basis of a judgement informed by a definite plan.

Why it might not be blah blah blah

Ireland. The Irish border. The insoluble over-constrained problem. There is only one form of Brexit that would not damage the peace process by having a hard border with the Republic and that also would not divide the UK by having a hard border in the Irish Sea: the UK stays in the Customs Union and the Single Market. That would not go down well with the Brexiters.

The EU is committed to working with the UK to find a solution to the Irish Border issue by June 2018. If that fails, the EU will write the solution [NI to stay in the Customs Union &c] into the withdrawal agreement – and whether the UK then has an internal border is not a matter for the EU.

There is a clear task here for the Opposition: to ensure that the Government holds to that time-table and reaches a concrete agreement.

Good government: the case for the referendum on the terms

It’s really all very simple. Leave had an idea but no plan. No-one takes a project from idea to implementation without a review of the project plan.

“Let’s go for a picnic tomorrow.”

“Good idea. I agree”

Tomorrow comes. It is raining.

Leave voters say we have to go on that picnic – the decision has already been made; the only choice is umbrella or raincoat. But of course we don’t go on the picnic. We can review the idea when we have a project plan based on better information.

If the same people review the plan as made the decision on the idea they can hardly claim betrayal. Nor would it be a re-run, but rather asking the next question in the series.

MPs’ duty part 2

A plan must have enough information to allow an informed decision. We need to know whether it will be Norway or Canada; whether we will after all be able to have our cake and eat it; whether we will be protectionist or ‘Global Britain’; what will the rules be on EU immigration, such a big driver of the Leave vote; how we will make our money given the importance of services exports into the Single Market.

MPs have a duty to ensure that the terms are clear enough for us to understand what it is that we are deciding on. The need to resolve the Irish Border is the key tool for ensuring that the Government does go for clarity.

The Prime Minister has promised “sufficient detail”. Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and Tom Brake have to lead in making sure that the Government’s delivery matches the Prime Minister’s commitment.




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