How Labour’s new leadership must handle Brexit in coming months

© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

Politics has been relentless since the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. But since Labour’s devastating defeat in the 2019 general election, it feels like we are in a different world. There is rarely urgent business on the floor of the House of Commons, the political and Europe editors have disappeared from the rolling news channels, and politics no longer dominates our lives. And yet this is precisely the time we need to be paying attention. The decisions being made now are determining our long-term future, and demand our attention and scrutiny.

The Tories fought the election promising a free trade agreement “underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field” – a pledge they ditched as quickly as it takes to say ’80-seat majority’. Boris Johnson has gone from promising regulatory alignment to regulatory freedom. Many businesses don’t fear alignment, they demand it. Our economy has grown by just 0.5% over the last 12 months. We lack consumer and investor confidence. A chill can be felt as growth in China, India and Germany slows down. We are at risk of being in recession before the end of the year. We cannot let the Tories inflict harm on our economy, our jobs, and our public services.

The single biggest issue facing us this year is signing a trade deal with the EU. The first priority for our new leader, the Shadow Chancellor and the Shadow Business Secretary will be to ensure that either the government secures a deal, or it secures an extension to the transition period. The government’s blueprint for a new relationship with our most important trading partner and nearest geographical neighbour can only be described as deluded and reckless: “We will not be extending the transition period. It simply defers the moment at which we are in charge of our own destiny.” These words put fear into any business leader.

We have a government that is prepared to inflict long-term damage to our jobs and economy, in favour of sovereignty. Labour must thwart the dangerous and destructive consequence of this Conservative dogma. A no-deal Brexit will be catastrophic. In ruling out extending the transition period, the government is willing to jeopardise business security in favour of uncertainty. It expects to complete negotiations that normally take years in just ten months, with a cavalier disregard for the consequences of failing to meet such self-imposed timelines.

How does our incoming leadership team handle this? First, we need honesty with the British people. How does Johnson even think he can negotiate and ratify a complex trade deal in ten months? The negotiating mandate seeks to cherry pick, without making any concessions. He’s setting himself up to fail, safe that a no-deal Brexit won’t hit him and his out-of-touch government.

Secondly, we need to explain the risk. We have powerful arguments and need our front-bench ‘A team’ to articulate them. Leaving the EU on World Trade Organisation terms will mean trade tariffs that will hit everyone in the pocket from New Year’s day 2021, and trade barriers that will drastically slow down the movement of goods. We must remind people of the treasury analysis that predicts a contracting economy, and that the Tories’ ideology seeks to undermine important protections – like the right to paid holidays, safe limits on working hours and environmental standards. We have to pin that on them.

Our biggest challenge is to ensure that the Johnson administration either leaves with a deal, or extends the transition period. That can only happen if extraordinary pressure is brought to bear on the government; once again uniting business and workers with Labour at the heart of that campaign.

Next, we can’t just criticise the government but must also put our own solutions on the table. Labour needn’t oversteer from our manifesto commitment for a comprehensive customs union and single market alignment – to protect jobs, rights, living standards, our economy and our public services. We have to be the party that consistently and coherently makes the case for continuing high standards with no weakening of rights and protections, both inside and outside of the EU.

Finally, we must ensure that the Tories own the failure. Any economic damage is on them. The blame for jobs lost, businesses closing, and industries jeopardised will firmly rest at Johnson’s door. We must never stop reminding them of that. Johnson has been seduced by the promise of a trade deal with the US. But in chasing that dream he is willing to throw us into a no-deal Brexit, and throw Britain into a recession. We are up against a powerful Tory government that has the numbers to do what it wants. Labour has a duty to stand up for people who will suffer. The fightback has begun.

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