Ten weeks away from a catastrophic no-deal Brexit, we are fast running out of options. The Tories have wasted over two years trying to persuade the EU to break the very rules we helped set up – rules that are key to ensure its cohesion and stability. Unsurprisingly, they have said no; the only compromise being to agree to a permanent backstop to ensure that there is no return to a hard border and the associated risk of renewed conflict in Northern Ireland.
Bizarrely, Theresa May has gone back to the EU to demand the old changes, the same compromises, that the EU has rejected 100 times. She genuinely doesn’t seem to understand the historic scale of her defeat last week; and thinks that just one more heave will get it over the line. That she has no plan to reverse that defeat and win over others is worrying. But the fact that she is doing it 10 weeks away from a disastrous no deal that would, by the Government’s own admission, lead to a loss of 3 million jobs, a hit to the economy that would far outstrip the financial crisis, and lead to many businesses and industries going to the wall; is simply beyond belief.
No deal is insane. No Parliament should let it be countenanced, even as a last resort; which is why it was absolutely right of Jeremy Corbyn to ask Theresa May to rule it out before opening discussions on a way forward. To continue to use it as a threat, as she has done now for months, is a dereliction of duty and the tactic of a dictator, not an elected Prime Minister.
This is why it’s so important that Labour is honest with the country about the options we now have to prevent no deal. For all the talk of Norway Plus, Canada and Common Market 2.0 there are in reality only two options available in the ten weeks before 29 March.
The first option is, as May hopes, that MPs will in the end accept her flawed withdrawal agreement on the grounds that it is the only agreement available. Against her is the fact that the facts haven’t changed: it is hard to overstate how bad her agreement actually is. Brexit has always been a choice a trade-off between lost prosperity and lost sovereignty. Her deal manages to achieve both, hence MPs of all stripes uniting to vote against it last week.
The only way the Prime Minister could get her agreement through Parliament would be if an amended political declaration was attached, for example to state that Norway Plus or something similar should be our aim. But since this would not be legally binding - it’s just a wish list – it’s hard to see MPs voting for it. A future Tory Government could just rip it up and head for their own, much harder, version of Brexit. In those circumstances, MPs would just be crossing their fingers and hoping for the best.
The second achievable option is a public vote on remain versus a real, achievable, version of leave. We know that the EU would give an extension of Article 50 for this to happen; they have this week removed one roadblock by allowing an extension without us participating in European Parliament elections.
So how do we get from where we are now to parliamentary agreement for a public vote? If the Government made the deal conditional on approval by a new public vote, this would be a risk worth taking if it were the only way to a new vote. May’s deal is the least popular version of Brexit out there, satisfying neither soft nor hard Brexiters, and on current polling leading to a 63% remain win.
For Labour this is the only sensible choice – to back a public vote and to do all it can to win parliamentary backing for it, working with whoever is willing from across the House. We have already ruled out the insanity of no deal. May’s agreement, even with an updated political declaration, is still a disaster and would leave a future government with full room for manoeuvre to make Brexit as hard as it liked. It would be a leap in the dark, no matter what the proponents of Norway would tell you. Backing Brexit – any Brexit – is catastrophic for our hopes of gaining a Labour Government; the biggest poll done so far said backing Brexit would leave Labour on 26%, gifting the Tories a majority and the freedom to do as they liked both with Brexit and everything else.
In contrast, a public vote would allow us to challenge the failure of the Tories, not only over Brexit but also over austerity, their handling of the economy and the failure of their negotiations. We could contrast Brexit, continued austerity, universal credit and isolation under the Tories to a Labour vision of investment, internationalism and ongoing partnership with our European friends to solve the shared challenges we face, including climate breakdown and automation.
Just as importantly, a public vote is the overwhelming choice of Labour’s voters and members. It is the choice most respectful to leave voters, who deserve the chance to vote leave – despite everything we now know – if they still want to. A parliament stitch-up based on May’s deal does them no favours.
Labour’s conference motion still guides us. At this point of the process it asks that we look at available options and make the choice most likely to stop the disaster of no deal. Given the timescale, it’s time for Labour to look at the available options and make the choice. Of the available options: a leap in the dark based on an updated political declaration, or trusting the people in a public vote, only one honours the will of Labour members and gives respect to voters.
Labour needs to support a public vote, and it needs to do it soon.