Imagine the polls had been right: a remain victory with 52% of the vote. Cue sigh of relief from pundits and pollsters – those 2015 election polls were just an aberration.
But then, who pops up on our screens? None other than Nigel Farage, declaring, just five months on (ok, it probably would’ve taken him about five minutes) that the result was too close to be definitive: “Look at the polls now’, he’d proclaim, ‘they show people have changed their minds. We shall clearly need a second referendum in a couple of years.”
What would our response have been? We’d have called him a sore loser: “Nigel, you don’t seem to understand how democracy works. You lost. Get over it“
Only, that’s not what happened. Britain voted leave. Yes it was close, but it was clear.
And so to those calling for the rejection of article 50 unless the government offers a referendum on the exit deal, I say: please practice what you would have preached. We are democrats. The people have spoken, and they’ve said we are leaving the European Union.
That’s why we must be engaged, fighting for a balanced Brexit – a Brexit in the national interest.
Theresa May has played her hand poorly, from the word go. Her knee-jerk conference speech gave Donald Tusk carte blanche to say that there will be no soft Brexit, her response to the High Court ruling smacks of Brexit-by-diktat, and the three Brexiteers in her cabinet are already fighting like cats in a sack.
The shambolic and high-handed way the government are handling themselves on Brexit has presented Labour with countless opportunities to start regaining the trust and respect of the British people, as a credible opposition. And we had started doing just that: by forensically scrutinising their failings in the chamber and relentlessly exposing their incompetence through the media – we were genuinely starting to look like a force to be reckoned with on Brexit.
But then this idea that we should make the triggering of article 50 conditional on a referendum on the exit deal emerged; and suddenly we are back to square one.
It’s a misguided and potentially toxic proposal, and here’s why:
1. It fails to recognise the dynamic and multi-faceted nature of the negotiations
The Brexit process will be based on two phases, the first being withdrawal, under article 50, the second end-state, under article 218. Withdrawal determines the details of the divorce; end-state determines our future relationship with the EU, as a non-EU country.
The article 218 phase is where the big questions such as access to the single market and reforms to freedom of movement will be decided.
The idea of a referendum on completion of the article 50 phase is therefore deeply misguided, because the withdrawal is a relatively minor piece of the Brexit puzzle. The success or failure of Brexit will depend on the terms of the article 218 package, not on the details of what is agreed under article 50.
Labour will not be forgiven if we are seen to be supporting the threat to veto the triggering of article 50. The British people will rightly wonder what on earth is going on when the public debate is all about end-state issues such as our trading relationship with the EU and dealing with free movement, but those issues are not actually covered by the withdrawal package upon which they would be voting. Moreover, it is safe to assume that the resulting referendum would deliver a land-slide leave majority, as the electorate would react with justified anger against the gaping disconnect between the macro terms of the real debate on the one hand, and the relatively micro terms of the article 50 exit deal on the other.
2. What about the votes of our constituents?
Many of my Labour colleagues talking about a veto represent constituencies that returned majorities for remain, and I congratulate them on that. But let’s pause for a moment to imagine the response that colleagues from areas of the country that voted leave (such as mine) would receive if they were to return to their constituencies and say:
“Well, we subjected you to months of intense debate about the EU, but you didn’t give us the answer we wanted, so we’ll just keep asking until you agree with us”
Any sentence that contains the phrase: “we will only agree to trigger article 50 if…” is deeply toxic. And if it’s associated with the Labour Party in the public consciousness, it will do us untold damage.
3. The threat-to-veto stance militates directly against our efforts to become a credible Opposition
David Cameron blundered complacently into this referendum in an attempt to tackle an internal spat within the Tory Party. It wouldn’t have happened with a Labour government, but we must now accept the result, and focus forensically on holding the government to account. Let’s keep them to their promises, kick up a stink when they fail to secure the deals that they said they’d secure, or when the bill for hiring trade negotiators runs out of control, or when the slow-burn impact of Brexit on the economy really starts to bite.
We must be there for the British people when the tough times come, as they surely will. And we must always remind them that it was the Tories who got us into this mess, and that they should be duly punished at the ballot box for having done so.
We must keep fighting for a Parliamentary vote and voice on Brexit, not because we are obstructionist, bitter “remoaners” trying to block Brexit, but because we are patriotic parliamentarians, determined to stand up to a bullying executive, to ensure that the national interest is served by a balanced Brexit.
The government is at the eye of the Brexit storm, and rightly so. They have sailed the ship into uncharted waters, without a map, compass or any sense of direction. Our job now is to be a responsible and constructive opposition. We must hold this government’s feet relentlessly to the fire, scrutinise its every move, and ensure that Theresa May works in the national interest, as opposed to the tactical party management manoeuvres that have so far defined her approach.
But none of this will be possible if the narrative of Brexit becomes the story of Labour playing Westminster games, and attempting to subvert the will of the British people.
None of this will be possible if we are associated with the laying down of misguided ultimatums.
On Brexit we should be holding the government to account, not to ransom.