Whether the Supreme Court was legally correct to say that Parliament must legislate before the Government can invoke Article 50 is for others to debate. Rightly, the courts gave judgment and have settled the issue. Politically, I always believed the Government should seek approval from Parliament for its timing and strategy.
But the Supreme Court’s decision places Labour in a truly poisonous position. Most of our voters backed Remain; most of our seats backed Leave. We cannot defy the referendum result; we cannot back a hard Brexit. I do not envy our embattled MPs.
I can see why Jeremy Corbyn wishes to ask Labour MPs to vote for the Article 50 Bill at Second Reading. And ultimately, I won’t blame him for that, although I disagree with a three-line whip. I know Labour cannot simply ignore the referendum result, and that many – probably most – will feel they should vote in favour to show they accept that result.
But Labour MPs overwhelmingly backed Remain. In many cases, their constituents did too. MPs like Jo Stevens, Catherine West and Tulip Siddiq put themselves at great risk if they ignore their own residents’ views. And some – those who are and have always been committed Europeans – will feel their consciences can only stretch so far.
I accept parties of government must have a position on such issues, but frankly I see little point in pretending Labour is in any danger of being in government soon anyway. The current struggle is for survival – one which many MPs will struggle to win if they alienate their Remain-voting constituents. Jeremy can take his position, and most Labour MPs will back him, but it is divisive and unhelpful to force MPs’ consciences at Second Reading. MPs will split hopelessly anyway; best to make some shred of virtue out of overwhelming necessity.
The more important question for the national interest is how Labour MPs vote at Third Reading. Here, there comes a point where Labour MPs must consider the policy consequences of their votes, however electorally inconvenient that may be. Reluctantly, I accept the country voted to leave: overriding the vote without a referendum would be anti-democratic and could occasion a terrible backlash against mainstream politics, and we would lose a second referendum by a larger margin than the first. We now need to try to minimise the damage. As such, I recognise Labour cannot reject Article 50 en masse regardless of the circumstances.
But once the UK triggers Article 50, we have a two-year window in which to negotiate an exit agreement, hopefully with a transitional deal as we move to a new relationship with the EU. It’s all very well to talk about meaningful parliamentary votes on the deal, but we can only extend those talks if every other EU member agrees. It’s legally uncertain whether we could even revoke Article 50 outright unilaterally, but clearly the Government will not do so. That means a vote on the final deal on exit and transition is very likely to be a choice between whatever May comes up with or nothing at all. Backing the Tories’ deal or being thrown out on WTO rules isn’t much of a choice.
If Parliament really wants to influence the shape of Brexit, it has to exercise that influence now, before the two-year countdown starts. And that means Labour’s backing for the Article 50 Bill must depend upon the amendments the Commons passes. If Labour MPs will not vote against the Article 50 Bill at Third Reading in any circumstances, they will effectively show that in the final analysis, they are prepared to let any kind of Brexit through.
The referendum gives Theresa May no right to a blank cheque. Nor does she have a right to ride roughshod over the views of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s administrations and legislatures. Her form of Brexit will do enormous damage to the people Labour represents. It may well poison our relations with the rest of Europe at the very time when the United States may abandon our continent too. Labour should not sign her cheque so long as it stays blank.
Labour and Brexit
More broadly, Labour needs to be frank about the true implications of what Theresa May plans to do. She has said she wants to leave the single market and the customs union, although she seems to have some notion of simplifying customs proceedings. Responding to her speech, Keir Starmer said: ‘It is good that she has ruled out that hard Brexit at this stage.’ He also said ‘I accept that form follows function’.
His response ignores the secret of the single market. The rules and institutions of the single market are the single market: the form creates the function. It is simply not the case that May’s ‘bold and ambitious free trade agreement’ will do the same job. And Labour does no service to scrutiny by allowing that elision to pass unchallenged.
Jeremy Corbyn’s response shows where such a path leads us:
We welcome that the Prime Minister has listened to the case we’ve been making about the need for full tariff free access to the single market but are deeply concerned about her reckless approach to achieving it.
It is simply not good enough to say ‘hard Brexit’ is only about process, not endpoint. Labour should back remaining in the single market and level with voters about the tradeoffs – as well as the reality of our EU partners’ position. The Opposition should puncture the Government’s delusions, not indulge them.
Finally, I will not lie about what I would do at Second Reading if I were a Labour Member of Parliament. I could not in good conscience vote to give any impression I approve of what we are about to do. I do not approve, even if I try to be resigned. I am a passionate European and I always have been. I believe the European project is, for all its faults, the greatest attempt to build relations between our countries on the basis of law and not just power we have ever seen. I believe it has made an invaluable contribution to peace, democratisation and constitutionalism on the continent of Europe. I believe it is part of a web of institutions and habits of mind and inaccurate historical memories, a web which helps keep the dark heart of man at bay. And I would not want it said that the United Kingdom’s representative assembly walked away from it as one.