With this week marking one year until Britain officially leaves the EU, HuffPost is running a series of blogs answering big questions still left unanswered about our Brexit future. Today, Labour MP Heidi Alexander and Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin write on whether Britain might yet stay in the Single Market. Follow the series on #BrexitFuture
“I just wish those MPs who want to stay in the single market and customs union would come out and admit that what they really want is to stay in the EU.”
When one of my (Labour) colleagues in Westminster made this assertion a few weeks ago, it got me thinking - is this really the way people like me are perceived? Is this actually what my end game is? And are we now thought to be such a credible threat by those who primarily want to pull up the drawbridge on EU migration, that motivations are being ascribed to us which don’t exist?
A year on from the triggering of Article 50 and a year away from our scheduled departure from the EU, there’s a growing number of MPs, from across the political spectrum, who believe the type of Brexit being pursued by the Government will be hugely damaging - not just for our economy and the next generation, but potentially for peace in Northern Ireland and our place in the world.
More and more MPs - from all parties - are now questioning the political choices that have been made by Mrs May, partly prompted by the rejection by the public of her request for a strengthened hand in the General Election last year.
The presentation of her strategy as an automatic consequence of the referendum stuck for a time but when leaked analysis of the differential economic impact of different forms of Brexit started to circulate, the debate started to changed.
As labour shortages in different sectors - food processing, hospitality, care - become more evident and as businesses delay investment decisions and move parts of their operation or supply chain overseas, the reality of Theresa May’s Brexit is starting to bite.
Politicians and the public want an alternative.
Staying part of the Single Market - by staying inside the European Economic Area and in a European Customs Union (out of the EU but with the closest possible trading links) is an increasingly attractive prospect. It would respect the result of the referendum - we would no longer be subject to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, we would not be subject to ever closer political union, but we would maintain the close economic relationship the public value and businesses need. It would give us a way to protect our trade in both goods and services with the EU and provides the only credible answer to the need to maintain a border devoid of checks in Northern Ireland.
“When push comes to shove, I really hope that MPs will do what is right for the country and that it won’t be a case of too little, too late”
If there was a free vote today, where MPs could vote on the basis of their conscience without interference from the whips, I believe there would be a majority for staying in the Single Market and a Customs Union.
It would be close - the two main parties would be split - but many MPs would support it even if it meant taking on the positive argument about immigration to a sceptical electorate in their constituencies. Most MPs know that we have an ageing population, we need people to come here to work and that even if we were to go down the route of trying to get a decent free trade agreement with the EU, we would need to give them a preferential migration system, one which is more relaxed than that which we offer to other non European citizens. Why not stay in the Single Market then?
The question for MPs is how to secure a vote on the Government’s negotiating stance when Ministers are doing everything they can to avoid one. The fact that the Opposition are still feeling their way towards a clear position does not help either. Amendments to the Trade and Customs Bills, which are due back to the Commons having completed their committee stages may be an option although the Government have kicked those into the long grass for fear of a defeat. The return of the EU Withdrawal Bill from the Lords may be another, or the Implementation and Withdrawal Bill that has been promised by the Government for later this year.
Parliament is waking up. The rebellion prior to Christmas of Conservative MPs was important not so much for its content but what it signals. When push comes to shove, I really hope that MPs will do what is right for the country and that it won’t be a case of too little, too late.
Heidi Alexander is the Labour MP for Lewisham East
For more information on the Labour Campaign for the Single Market, visit labour4singlemarket.org