This is the second letter I have written to constituents on this subject. The situation has been changing so much and so quickly that it is difficult to set things down without them being overtaken by events. But I want to assure you that I write the same letter to all my constituents. I do not change what I say according to the differing views – both leave and remain – that my constituents set out to me!
For those of you who have seen my first letter sent out in December, this is by way of an update and you can see my latest speech in the House of Commons on January 14th here.
To those of you who have not seen my first letter it can be viewed here, so that you are able to see the progression of events and indeed of my own thinking.
You will recall that the debate on Brexit was scheduled to conclude with a “meaningful vote” on the 11th of December. However, on the previous day the Prime Minister announced to the House of Commons that she would defer the vote, saying: “if we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow, the deal would be rejected by a significant margin. We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow, and will not seek to divide the House at this time.” and she promised to secure further assurances from the EU to enable the deal to secure a majority in the House of Commons.
One of the key issues that parliament was concerned about was the nature of the Northern Ireland Backstop arrangements and the Labour Party had asked to see the legal advice upon which the government had agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol. Initially the government refused but, when the debate resumed as parliament came back after the Christmas recess, Labour finally forced the government to publish.
When it did the advice was devastating. Not only did it confirm that the UK would be locked in the backstop in perpetuity with no unilateral ability to get out, it also established that “GB is essentially treated as a third country by NI for goods passing from GB to NI”. This went against the whole constitutional unity of the United Kingdom and would have seen different rules and regulations applying in different parts of our country.
It was clear that the backstop was unacceptable; but also that the Prime Minister had failed to secure the new and legally binding assurances she had promised that might have enabled some MPs to support her deal. In fact on the 15th of January her deal ultimately recorded the largest defeat for a government in parliamentary history: 432 votes Against – to just 202 votes In Favour – a margin of defeat by 230 votes.
What became clear is that the Prime Minister’s deal had actually managed to unite MPs of both Remain and Leave persuasions against key aspects of her deal and that instead of finding a way forward she was now “running down the clock” against the March 29th deadline. In effect the Prime Minister was now holding a gun to parliament’s head and saying that if we did not support her deal then the country would crash out of the EU onto the worst possible option of no agreement at all.
You will recall that the Prime Minister used to say that ‘No Deal was better than a Bad Deal’. And in any normal negotiation that is true. (You walk into a shop and if you fail to secure a deal and buy something then you walk back out and nothing has changed.) Unfortunately Brexit is not like that. The triggering of Article 50 means that if you fail to secure a deal within 2 years then you are forced to leave without any deal and all the existing legislation and trade agreements that you concluded as a member of the EU cease to apply. There is no status quo to move back to.
Avoiding a No Deal which would be disastrous for our economy has been my and the Labour Party’s focus in setting out our plans to secure a good deal that delivers on the referendum result without damaging jobs, rights at work, environmental standards or our constitutional arrangements under the Good Friday Agreement.
When the Prime Minister lost the vote on the 15th of January she was obliged to report back within three days about how she intended to proceed and parliament then had seven days to table amendments to what she proposed. I am writing to you the day after that series of amendments.
Labour’s amendment set out the need to avoid No Deal by allowing sufficient time for parliament to vote on options such as
- a new deal based on a customs union, guarantees on workplace rights, standards and protections and a close regulatory alignment with the single market.
- A public vote on any deal that secured a majority in the commons
It was defeated.
Another Labour amendment proposed by Yvette Cooper would have created more time for parliament to conclude a deal or to have a second referendum, by extending Article 50. This was also defeated.
A third amendment was put forward by the former Conservative Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. This would have created six designated days when parliament (rather than government) could introduce legislation in an attempt to break the impasse and come up with a compromise deal. All these amendments were supported by the Labour Party. But all were defeated.
A cross party amendment in the name of Caroline Spellman and Jack Dromey was agreed to. This simply said that parliament rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a deal. However, this was not a binding vote it was only an expression of parliament’s will and therefore had political rather than legislative force.
Parliament also agreed an amendment put forward by the Conservative chair of their backbench group (known as the 1922 Committee). This required that the backstop be replaced by “alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border” but would support the deal if this were the case.
Unfortunately this did not specify what those “alternative arrangements” are. We already knew parliament did not like the backstop; but to say we require alternative arrangements is simply to say we want something else without specifying what!
In effect Theresa May is now going back to Brussels without changing her own red lines and asking them to resolve her problem of the backstop to maintain the unity of the Conservative Party; when what she should be doing is changing her red lines and asking the right wing of her own party to compromise to preserve the unity of the country. Once again she is putting party before country.
There is one ray of hope. Last night when parliament expressed its opposition to a No Deal, the Prime Minister acknowledged and accepted that vote in her speech afterwards. This means that today Jeremy Corbyn will begin negotiations with the Prime Minister about a positive way forward.
I hope that she will have listened carefully to the comments from the EU and realise that she cannot change the deal without changing her red lines. I hope she will listen to Labour’s positive suggestions about how such a compromise could come about and how it could secure a majority in the House of Commons.
We set out in our manifesto two years ago what we believed were the essential elements of a positive future deal: that the country accepted the referendum result, that we negotiated a deal that would capture the benefits of a customs union and protect workplace rights and environmental standards and keep a close regulatory alignment with the single market.
If the Prime Minister agrees we may yet find a pathway through this present mess.
Above all I believe parliament needs to concentrate on the real issues that people are facing now: the lack of affordable housing, cuts to public services, violent crime, police cuts, zero hours contracts, the lack of social care for the elderly and the lack of adequate school funding. The tragedy of the botched Brexit negotiations is that government attention has not been focused on these domestic problems. On all of these I am doing my utmost to continue to represent for Brent North alongside my duties on Brexit and International Trade.