Labour cannot rubber-stamp a Tory Brexit deal. This is an enormous trap

Catherine McKinnell
© Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

It could be this week. It could be next week. In theory, it might never come. It may well not even need a straight up or down vote in the Commons, but it is unlikely that the Tories would miss an opportunity to make one happen. One thing for certain, however, is that the much over-promised deal with the EU is set to be the next episode in the national drama that has dominated UK politics over the last five years.

One thing we need to prepare ourselves for as a party, and as a movement, is the way that the Tories will try to frame the debate when their deal eventually arrives. It is in their interests to establish a simple but startling contrast between their deal and the consequences of no deal. However thin their deal is, with concession after concession to the EU, the Tories will want to be singing its praises and the only way they will be able to give any impression of shine will be by comparing it to the disaster that a no-deal exit would be.

After so many years of divisive debate, there is an understandable desire within the labour movement to now put it aside and accept whatever the government comes back with. The argument is lost, time has run out. There is no appetite for the disruption, uncertainty and chaos that would result from a no-deal exit on top of the challenges already faced in dealing with the impact of the pandemic.

But the gnawing reality is that this is an enormous trap. The looming prospect of a no-deal exit is a phantom the Tories have regularly conjured up to convince people to support anything as an alternative – no matter how harmful it may be. Yet the contrast between their deal and no deal is the contrast between their policy and something that we have tried every which way to avoid. It would damage Britain more than any other country and more than any other outcome. It is something that no responsible government should do.

Instead, no matter which side of the argument we may have stood on over the last five years in terms of the referendum and subsequently, it is our duty as the opposition to hold the government to account for the promises they have made. In order to do that, we must focus on the gap between what the government is doing and what we would do – not between what the government is doing and some phantom, catastrophic, unthinkable outcome. If we are making the contrast between no deal and the Tory deal, we are simply rubber-stamping their plan all along.

It is a trap that Labour must be very careful not to fall into. We should think about what Labour would be looking for in this deal and making the case for the shortcomings of this deal against Labour’s demands, not against Tory threats of no deal. Before he was leader, and before we left the EU, Keir Starmer set six tests for the Tories on any exit agreement. They failed those tests. Keir was right to use them to both hold the Tories to account against what they said they could achieve and what we would have sought to achieve, not simply against the worst possible outcome. His strategy to force the Tories to account for their promises, not their threats, and to shine a spotlight on their failings was absolutely correct.

Today, the tests are different. We have already left the EU. It is clear that we are not going to get the exact same benefits, despite the many promises. After all, the government has already legislated to stop that. But we can still measure the government against the sort of deal Labour thinks we could have achieved since the 2019 election – the sort of deal that would have put livelihoods first, and the politics second. Because by 2024, we need to be clear about the difference a Labour government could have and would make.

Our economic case is almost certainly going to be shaped by how our trading relationship with the EU could and should be different. Our critique of the government’s national security record may well need to focus on what they did not deliver in this deal, and how we put it right. For the next few years, again and again, we need to be able and ready to draw the contrast between what we think is right and what they have done – not give in to the inevitability of the disaster that awaits us. Here is what I will be looking for when measuring the Tory deal against what could have been achieved:

  1. Barrier-free trade in goods, without quotas for imports, tariffs, fees, or charges;
  2. A lasting level playing field agreement, which protects workers’ rights here in Britain and secures our environmental standards;
  3. Mutual recognition of qualifications, vital for the UK services industries, from banking and law through to engineering consultancy;
  4. Intellectual property arrangements that protect UK innovation and creativity;
  5. Data protection agreements that ensure our tech industry can thrive and our police have access to the security information that keeps us all safe;
  6. Travel arrangements that protect UK holidaymakers: preserving mobile phone roaming agreements, a simple replacement for European health insurance cards, simple pet passports and the freedom to travel for leisure without barriers;
  7. EU recognition of UK drivers’ licences and vice versa – especially for lorry drivers and all those who drive to the EU for a living;
  8. A comprehensive agreement on health and social security for pensioners overseas and for all those needing healthcare abroad;
  9. Continuing involvement in the arrangements that make the European arrest warrant possible; and
  10. Enforcement and governance arrangements for the deal that are clear, robust, workable and provide British companies and workers with the certainty they need.

These might not be your tests, but we should all be thinking about what our tests are now. We cannot allow the Tories to shape how we think about the deal that they bring back. They have strung this out to the very last possible moment to leave no time for debate. They have an 80-seat majority and do not need Labour to get this through. This is on them.

If and when the deal comes, remember what we were promised and think about what we could have had. Remember what we did have. Think about what we will need to be calling for at the next election. If it is not what is on the table, why would we be voting for it now? Whatever you do, don’t just accept that it is better than nothing. Because that was Boris Johnson’s plan all along.

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