Opposing Tory Brexit and securing a public vote
Updated September 2019
This post sets out my work over the last three years. You can read my views on the current position in my regular Brexit updates – read the latest one 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 believe that we can tackle the big challenges we face – from climate change to international terrorism – more effectively with our friends and neighbours. 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 very 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’ve been one of Labour’s Shadow Brexit Ministers since 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.
Since then the Tory Government has been in 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 incredibly hard for us to get a good deal. In the summer of 2017, Labour led the way in calling for a transitional period, on broadly current terms, which the Government accepted and subsequently agreed with the EU.
In February last year, 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’ve 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. I’m continuing to work with them as the Government roll out the new ‘settled status’ for EU citizens here, and on the rights of continued movement within the EU27 for UK citizens there.
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 has 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, 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 was not willing to compromise. 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 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. The implications for our politics are deeply concerning, but most concerning of all is that he won by promising the Tory membership that he will take the UK out of the EU on 31st October “do or die”, and did not rule out proroguing Parliament. MPs secured an amendment to the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Act to try to prevent him doing so for the September sitting, but he pressed ahead and shut us at the earliest opportunity.
Our priority now, working with opposition parties and concerned Conservatives, is to use every parliamentary and political tool at our disposal to prevent him crashing the UK out of the EU without a deal and to secure a further public vote – on which you can read the article I wrote in the Sheffield Star here.