‘Take back control’ was a powerful slogan in the leave campaign in the 2016 referendum on EU membership. Along with concern about free movement of labour and now clearly specious claim that our EU contributions could be better spent on the NHS, the slogan about taking back control, endlessly repeated by the leave campaign, resonated widely.
In fact, 18 months on from the referendum, it is clear that the decision to leave the EU has put the UK in the most humiliating position imaginable, short of a major military defeat.
To leave without disastrous economic consequences (such as a collapse in inward investment), we find ourselves supplicants, begging for a good deal. Our demands about the future relationship with the EU are being regarded in Brussels, as unrealistic, wishful thinking. Nowhere is this more obvious than the lack of any clear idea about avoiding a hardening of the border across Ireland. More generally, we have rejected staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union. Instead, the Government has been scrambling to put together a claim which would enable the UK to align with some EU arrangements and deviate from others – a highly complex ‘pick and mix’ strategy, aiming to have our cake and eat it. It is getting short shrift across the Channel, deservedly so.
The Prime Minister’s Mansion House speech may have united the Cabinet and the Conservative Party for the moment. EU negotiators may be being coolly polite about it for the moment. But, to put it mildly, they are unimpressed and are steering towards using the EU-Canada free trade deal as a template for agreement with the UK, a position which could, on the Government’s own figures, cut UK GDP by 5%.
Where is Parliament in all this? It is promised a meaningful vote when the final deal is concluded. This is a very welcome step insisted on by the House of Commons. However, this is not enough – and it may be too late to exert a decisive influence.
By that stage, if indeed there is an agreement, the EU will probably be allied with the UK Government in saying ‘take it or leave it’ – and both could well be saying that the only alternative to agreeing the deal is no deal, with all the disastrous consequences that would have for our economy.
Yet there is an extra step that Parliament can take, and take as soon as possible. Parliament voted to trigger Article 50 to leave the EU but has not expressed its view on what should replace our full membership.
It should now rectify this gap, step up, and take control. It should demand the right to give our negotiators a mandate for the talks, force the Government to put its proposals on the future relationship to Parliament for endorsement or amendment, and exert some control of the negotiations a an early stage. Parliament should not be mere spectators. That is not taking back control.
So I, along with Lord Ming Campbell, Baroness Wheatcroft, Lord Lea of Crondall and other members of the Lords, are supporting an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill (number 142) calling for Parliament, especially the House of Commons, to have a meaningful vote, not just on the final terms of a deal, but, also, a prior vote on a mandate which sets a line for our negotiators to follow in the forthcoming talks. In such a vote, Parliament might endorse the Cabinet’s approach or it might amend it.
I hope it would not rule out retaining membership of the Customs Union and also keep open an option of staying in the European Economic Area and hence the Single Market.
But in any event, our democracy demands that Parliament has a say and a chance to influence the direction of travel of the talks.
So to our Parliamentary colleagues, especially in the House of Commons, we say it is time to take control. We must not leave the most important post-war decision solely in the fumbling hands of the Cabinet and the Conservative Party.
Lord John Monks is a Labour Peer and former General Secretary of the TUC