Opposing Tory Brexit

Updated August 2021

This post summarises my work over the last five years, both campaigning to remain in the EU, as a Shadow Brexit Minister from shortly after the referendum until the EU Future Relationship Bill was passed on 30th December 2020, and since then from the backbenches. I’ve also posted regular updates throughout this time, providing more detail on my views and activities, which you can read here.

I campaigned relentlessly for the UK to remain part of the EU – for jobs and the economy, for the stability of our continent, for our standing in the world, and because I believed that we could tackle the big challenges we face – from social justice to climate change – more effectively through that unique partnership with our neighbours on the continent we share. I made the case to hundreds of people at dozens of meetings and, with a great team of volunteers, spoke to over 9,000 people on their doorsteps – as well as delivering more than 40,000 leaflets to homes across my constituency. 

I campaigned on the understanding that the outcome mattered, because the result would be respected – whichever way it went – and, although painfully close, the decision was to leave. That’s why I voted for the Article 50 Bill, enabling the Government to negotiate our departure. But that did not give them a mandate on the terms of our departure. The only question on the referendum ballot paper was whether to remain or leave the EU. There was no vote on the terms and people were promised that the UK would leave with “easiest deal in history” I recognise that people voted to come out of the EU; but believe that they didn’t vote to lose out.

I was one of Labour’s Shadow Brexit Ministers from October 2016. I took the job to make sure that the terms of any departure protect people’s jobs and livelihoods, keep pace with the highest employment and environmental standards, and enable us to cooperate closely with our European partners on crime and security, as well as maintaining our partnerships on crucial issues like university research collaboration and scientific advancement. I set out my views on our future relationship in this article in the Yorkshire Post.

Theresa May called the General Election in June 2017 seeking a mandate for an extreme hard Brexit, but didn’t get it. She made the false claim that opposition parties were frustrating her attempts to get on with Brexit. We weren’t. We voted for her to start the negotiations; we just demanded more information about the Government’s plans and assurances about the impact on the economy and rights and protections built up in the EU. She was held back by the deep divisions within the Conservative Party and between Ministers. Her election gamble backfired, and she ended up losing her majority in the House of Commons.

The 2017-2019 Tory Government was defined by chaos. Instead of reaching out to the majority in Parliament and the country for a sensible approach which protects the economy and jobs, Theresa May allowed the extreme Brexit campaigners in the European Research Group to set the agenda. Their absolutist red lines for the negotiations made it impossible for us to get a good deal based on a close relationship. In the summer of 2017, Labour led the way in calling for a transitional period which, after initial resistance, the Government accepted and subsequently agreed with the EU.

In February 2018, Jeremy Corbyn set out Labour’s view on how the negotiations should have gone – seeking a comprehensive customs union with the EU which would have enabled tariff-free access to the EU, our largest trading partner, protecting our manufacturing base and helping to keep an open border on the island of Ireland. Alongside it, we wanted the closest possible relationship with the single market, and to maintain membership of the agencies and partnerships that we have built with the EU over the last 46 years – see my article with Keir Starmer here on Euratom, which illustrates our wider concern.

I also led for Labour’s front bench on the crucial issue of the rights of EU nationals, and the 1.2 million Brits working and living in the rest of the EU, who Labour opposed making ‘bargaining chips’ of in the negotiations – liaising closely with the groups that represented them, the3million and the British in Europe. I continued to work with them as the Government rolled out the new ‘settled status’ for EU citizens here, and on the rights of continued movement within the EU27 for UK citizens there, and will continue to do so now that we have left the EU.

After months of parliamentary debate, the EU (Withdrawal) Act which set the legal framework for our departure, passed in June 2018. You can read more about our concerns about the Act and why we opposed it here. Parliamentary attention then moved to the terms of the final deal, on which we had secured a commitment for a meaningful Parliamentary vote, without which the UK would have left the EU with Theresa May’s deal on 29 March. Labour set six tests for the deal which you can read here. These tests were based on the previous Government’s own stated objectives and the previous Prime Minister Theresa May said that she was determined to meet them. The draft agreement the Government reached with the EU was published in November 2018 and, after reading both Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on our Future Relationship with the EU, we were clear that it failed our six tests.

I set out Labour’s reasons for rejecting the deal when I closed for our front bench on the first day of the Brexit debate on 5th December 2018, which had been opened by the (previous) Prime Minister. You can watch or read my speech here. Facing inevitable defeat, she cut short the five days scheduled for debate and postponed the vote until 15th January. After a wasted month, the deal was defeated by the biggest margin in the history of our country; a massive 230 votes.

It was defeated again, by a huge majority, on 12th March and MPs voted to rule out leaving without a deal on the following day. The next day we voted to extend Article 50, but not in the way that Labour wanted. I wound up the debate for Labour, making the case against the proposed Tory Brexit, for a more flexible extension of Article 50, and for a further public vote. See my speech here.

On the eve of the extension being agreed, Theresa May delivered an extraordinary speech attacking MPs for voting against her deal, which was roundly criticised. To break the deadlock, MPs took control of the Order Paper to hold a series of indicative votes. You can read more about how I voted here and here, although no position received an overall majority.

Theresa May decided to make one final attempt on her deal by bringing it for a third vote on 29th March, bringing a motion on the Withdrawal Agreement without the Political Declaration. As she and the EU had repeatedly said, the two cannot be separated and, although she peeled off a few Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, she still couldn’t secure a majority. As the 12th April deadline approached, the House of Commons compelled her to seek another extension to Article 50 through the Cooper-Letwin Act in which I set out Labour’s support for the proposal and for a confirmatory public vote.

The EU agreed to an extension of Article 50 until 31st October and Theresa May then asked Labour to enter into negotiations on a deal that we could support. We talked in good faith for six weeks, but it only confirmed that the Government was in meltdown and not willing to compromise on our key concerns. So on 17th May, Jeremy Corbyn wrote to the Theresa May ending the talks.

As a result of the second extension, the UK participated in the European Parliament elections and I campaigned strongly for Labour’s candidates. As I made clear at the time, I was deeply disappointed that we lost our second Labour seat in Yorkshire and Humber, meaning that the Best for Britain and leading People’s Vote campaigner, Eloise Todd, was not elected. However, in Sheffield and across the UK, the combined vote for parties backing a further public vote and remaining in the EU beat the pro-Brexit parties.

It was clear to me that Labour was punished for the ambiguity around our support for a referendum, so I was pleased that on 9th July 2019 the Shadow Cabinet removed any doubt around our support for a further public vote in which we would campaign to remain.

After the Conservative Party’s disastrous showing at the European elections, Theresa May was forced to step down as Prime Minister and Boris Johnson was elected to replace her by just 92,000 Tory Party members who were prepared to break up the UK and damage our economy  to secure a hard Brexit. Johnson’s willingness to deliver Brexit at any cost and to avoid scrutiny was confirmed when he prorogued Parliament; a move that was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court.  When we returned after the Court decision, it was Labour’s priority to use every parliamentary and political tool at our disposal to prevent the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal – on which you can read the article I wrote in the Sheffield Star here. Working with opposition parties, we successfully passed the ‘Benn Act’, which avoided a ‘no deal’ Brexit at the end of October.

Boris Johnson negotiated a ‘new’ deal with the EU, which was largely the same as Theresa May’s, but sold his DUP allies down the river by creating barriers for trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – something that had always been on offer from the EU, but rejected by May. The Government introduced their first Withdrawal Agreement Bill in October, which we opposed because it was a bad deal for the UK. They won a vote on the principle of the Bill at Second Reading, but we were successful in leading opposition parties and sympathetic Conservatives to reject the Government’s attempt to push the Bill through with insufficient scrutiny. This prompted Boris Johnson to engineer a general election.

Throughout the election, Labour fought on the basis of our opposition to the Government’s Brexit deal, and in favour of giving the public a further say in a second referendum.

After their victory at the election, the Conservative Government put forward an updated Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which was even worse than the Bill we voted against in October. I led for Labour at Committee Stage, and you can read my speech on why we did not support the Bill here. It severely reduced the role of Parliament in deciding whether to extend the implementation period and in negotiations over the UK’s future relationship with the EU. It ditched all of the (already weak) protections on workers’ rights. The new Northern Ireland Protocol undermined the UK’s internal market, and most shamefully the Government removed the requirement to negotiate an agreement with the EU on unaccompanied children seeking asylum. I also set out the problems with the Government’s settled status scheme for EU citizens, which you can read here.

Unfortunately, the Government’s majority of 80 and their unwillingness to accept any amendments meant that we were not able to make any changes to the Bill, which passed meaning the UK therefore left the EU on 31st January 2020.

Although the Government then wound up the Department for Exiting the EU, I continued as a Shadow Minister, to co-ordinate the Labour Party’s response to Brexit, and maintain scrutiny and pressure on the Government. When the Government announced their negotiating objectives for our future relationship with the EU, I responded for the Labour Party, arguing that the Government had put ideology above common sense and our economic interests. You can read my full speech here. 

When Keir Starmer was elected leader of the Labour Party in April 2020, he asked me to stay on as Shadow Minister for Brexit and EU Negotiations, working between both the Shadow Cabinet Office team and the Shadow International Trade team. Throughout the negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, I held the Government to account on their proposals for our agreement on trade in goods and services, security, and workers’ rights and environmental protections.   

I called for accountability throughout the talks, and exposed the Government’s misleading claims over their aim for a ‘Canada’ styleled for Labour on our amendments to removes the aspects of the Internal Market Bill which broke international law and, working with colleagues in the House of Lords, we secured Government u-turns which removed the most damaging parts of the legislation.  

I worked on Labour’s amendments to the EU (Future Relationship) Bill at the end of December 2020, and although the Government’s outrageous legislation timetable did not permit votes on them, will carry on pressing for improvements in these areas. As we left the transition period, I stood down as a Shadow Brexit Minister, but am determined that the Tories carry the can for their weak deal, which will make our country and communities poorer – so I am continuing to hold them to account from the backbenches.  

In 2021, I’ve been a parliamentary member of the Trade and Business Commission, a cross-party, cross-industry group chaired by Hilary Benn MP, set up to scrutinise the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement as well as other future trade deals. Following the Government choosing to wind up the Future Relationship with the European Union Select Committee, we set up the Commission to ensure the Government is held to account and that trade deals are examined in detail. You can give evidence here and see the scrutiny sessions here.

I continue to raise EU issues in the House of Commons and to press Ministers to make improvements to the deal across a range of issues from education to visa permits to agriculture. I wrote a piece about my work with Labour colleagues, fighting for a better deal with the EU and exposing the flaws in the Conservatives’ approach, which you can read here.

When David Cameron became Tory leader in 2010 only 1% of British people thought our membership of the EU was an important issue, but many of them were on the Tory backbenches. His decision to call a referendum to manage conflict in his party has damaged and divided Britain, but it’s not the end of the storyWe remain a European nation with shared values and common interests. Although a deal has been agreed, there are lots of loose ends left undone and the UK will need to rebuild relationships with the EU in many key areas  

Labour will continue to advocate for the economic partnership we need, for close security collaborationand for safeguards on workers’ rights, environmental standards, and the other protections we have built together over 47 years of UK membership. The next review period is in 2026, and there will have been a General Election by then. As Keir Starmer told Parliament in December 2020, “We see this treaty as a basis to build from, and we want to retain a close economic relationship with the EU that protects jobs and rights, because that is where our national interest lies today and tomorrow.” 

To read about my other Brexit work, click here.

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