The announcement of Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK was a reminder of just what is at stake over Brexit. The hard right’s weapon of choice in a post-Brexit world will be trade treaties, and a treaty with Trump will be their number one aim. Many on the Tory hard right have never made a secret of their hatred of the EU’s insistence on higher standards as a match for growing trade, and unwinding that through a deal with Trump will always be a bigger priority than ensuring British industry gets a fair share of trade.
It is Trump’s amorality that will appeal most to the Tory Brexiters. They won’t particularly care that – in contrast to those who painfully and meticulously drew up the European Treaties in the search for consensus – he sees negotiations as a zero-sum game where there can only be one winner. For example, he wants to open up the NHS to the predatory claws of giant US drug and health firms, and so do they.
They will use the negative economic impact of Brexit and, above all, the scaring away of investment to say we have no choice but to sign up to such deals, no matter how one-sided they seem. A deal with Trump will be just the start. Once the principle of the EU’s firewall against substandard products, consumer protection and vampire capitalism has been conceded, the Brexiteers will stop at nothing to push their agenda forward.
Britain will be promoted as a low-regulation off-shore financial centre where easy access to hot money can be married to a hands-off attitude to what that money is used for outside of the UK.
On Friday, Liam Fox gushed about how the absolute monarchy of Qatar was a “natural partner” for the UK in trade. On the same day, Philip Hammond was praising the trade policies of the one-party regime of the People’s Republic of China. In a world where Brexit is going to put new barriers between us and the (imperfect, of course) democracies of the European Union, more and more ministers will be criss-crossing the world looking for favours from this and that potentate and dictator. It surely will not be long before our global aid budget is converted into a slush fund to buy trade – especially in weapons.
We can still stop all of this, of course. Or at least we can try. Labour does not have a majority in the Commons, we know that much. Even if we wanted to cancel Brexit at a stroke, that would currently be beyond our grasp. But with the Prime Minister’s authority diminishing by the day, it is also clear that her only hope of getting Brexit done is if Labour MPs vote for it.
The Prime Minister is desperately trying to find means and mechanisms to get some Labour MPs to vote for her deal, though so far has been able to offer nothing more than a paper promise to hold votes on any plans to move away from European standards on labour law. Perhaps not surprisingly, such an empty promise has cut little ice with Labour MPs, and now is the time to seize the initiative from this increasingly tired and dilapidated government and set our own terms.
And core to that must be the demand that any deal – with all its risks and costs – is put back to the people for the final say. We should be clearly and loudly demanding that an honest and informed choice about this vital question is made. In that campaign, I will be arguing that we should stay in the EU and build on its platform of employment protection and consumer rights. I cannot imagine that there will be Labour voices arguing the case for weakening international protection and risking our future on a deal with Trump, but if there are, they too will get their opportunity.