More than two hundred days ago, just before 75 Labour MPs rebelled in favour of single market membership, I stood in the House of Commons chambers and explained why. I did not argue that the European Economic Area, and its single market, was perfect. But, I said, it represented a deliverable alternative within the Brexit timeframe set by the Article 50 process, given the deadline we faced. And as I said then, a complete red line on free movement puts us on a road that leads to support for either a Tory hard Brexit or a no-deal Brexit, and neither of those are the roads we want.
If the Brexit negotiations had changed course at that point, we could have had a Brexit deal on the table that I and others might have voted for. But that is history. Nothing changed. The Tories were too busy arguing amongst themselves to realise that if Brexit was ever to be done in a hung parliament, it would need support from both parties, given the hardliners who want to see every single tie and connection with Europe severed. Labour’s EEA rebels from June 2018 were ignored.
Since then, the Prime Minister’s attempted negotiation with her own party has driven our prospects into the wall. Car manufacturers – beset by problems both connected to and unconnected to Brexit – are cutting jobs. Science industries are stock piling chemicals. The NHS is bulk buying fridges. Food prices are rising. Tory austerity economics, which drove the Brexit vote, is far from over.
And the clock has run down. Two hundred days later we are no closer to a settled Brexit view in the House of Commons than at the time of the EEA rebellion. Our partners in Europe are exasperated. They say this is the deal on the table, and we should decide.
Well, for us on the Labour side, it’s a no. If this is Brexit, I don’t want it. I don’t want it for my constituents, I don’t want it for our kids, and I don’t want this future for our country. The political statement on our future is just a wish list that fails to deal with the reality of the hard choices that Brexit throws up. The frictionless trade that was promised has been dropped. The idea of the ‘exact same benefits’ David Davis spoke of long since abandoned, and Brexiteers are now left claiming that the pain is worth it.
So, when the deal is voted down, what should we do? Should we resurrect the idea of the EEA, even though it was voted down in June. There are three reasons why I do not believe that this is a likely route out of the mess.
Firstly, it’s not Labour policy. Which might seem like a technical matter, but it is not. After the rebellion failed in June, many of us spoke to colleagues in unions and CLPs, as well as Labour’s front bench. How could we get a statement of policy that we could all agree to? Union policy conferences met, CLPs passed resolutions, along with socialist societies and campaign groups. All of this culminated in our September conference, which then agreed the steps we would take in face of current events. Given the effort this took, we should not abandon the settled will of the labour movement.
And we know the settled will is. Support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.
Could that include renegotiating in favour of the EEA? In theory, though having been through the pre-conference debate on our policy, I know there are legitimate objections to an EEA model because it would leave us without enough political influence over the European single market rules. And that’s the second reason why Labour MPs can’t easily move to support the EEA model, without a much better answer on how we would wield genuine political influence.
And thirdly, we know we are not going to be offered anything different than what is on the table – EU leaders have made that abundantly clear. The Prime Minister set out her negotiating position far too early and far too rigidly – this is one of the reasons we are debating this issue again in the first place. Our European partners have only offered to clarify, not change fundamentally, what is on the table.
Which leaves us with the final option: campaigning for the public to have a final say.
I find the idea of another referendum unappealing. But to put it simply, Brexit is worse. The clock is ticking. We have very little time to halt disaster. And if you are in politics – as we all are - to take decisions, then sometimes working out the least-worst option is your job.
Alison McGovern is the Labour MP for Wirral South