Disturbingly little has changed since my last Brexit update in December, other than the road that the Prime Minister is kicking the can down is getting shorter by the day. We are now less than twelve weeks from 29 March, the date that we leave the EU, but no closer to an agreement.
The Prime Minister opened the debate on the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on the Framework for the Future Relationship over a month ago on 4th December 2018 and, on the same day, I closed for the Opposition (you can watch my speech here or read it here). We were expecting five days of debate and had been promised a vote the following week, on 11th December, but with an overwhelming defeat inevitable, the Prime Minister postponed it for over a month.
This week, the Government will restart the clock on five days of debate with the vote expected on the 15th or 16th January. With no changes to the Withdrawal Agreement or Political Declaration and no movement in the political arithmetic, Parliament remains set to vote it down. So the past month has been a complete waste of time; time that was already running out.
What has become ever clearer over the past month is just how crucial it is to avoid us crashing out of the EU without a deal. I spoke to motor manufacturers in December and they have made their concerns clear. Just last week our universities, a sector that supports 944,000 jobs across the country, described ‘no deal’ as one of the biggest threats they have ever faced. The risks are made worse by the total lack of preparedness; which reached farcical levels when it was revealed the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, has awarded a £13.8m contract for ferry services to a company with no ships. It matters hugely at a personal level too. Just before Christmas, with Labour’s Shadow Immigration Minister, I wrote to our counterparts in Government to raise concerns about details of their plans on the rights of EU nationals in the UK and British nationals in the EU27 in the event of no deal.
It is clear that the Prime Minister’s deal does not command majority support in Parliament or in the country. The Prime Minister’s strategy has long been to present Parliament with the ‘Hobson’s choice’ of her doomed deal or no deal at all. It is worse than ‘like it or lump it’: it is a choice between different degrees of economic harm. A 4% smaller economy with her deal or more than 9% smaller with ‘no deal’, as the Treasury’s own analysis verified. If there is a majority in Parliament for anything, it is against jeopardising our economy and putting the jobs and livelihoods of our citizens at risk by crashing out of the EU on 29th March without a deal and we will work to ensure that outcome.
Labour has been clear that we would vote against any deal that did not meet our six tests for it; six tests that were set by the Government’s own stated objectives and which the Prime Minister said she was determined to meet. The Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration do not meet those six tests and we will vote against the deal. Despite the delay, and further efforts by the Government to win support, the chance of the deal passing now are as slim as they were when I closed for the frontbench on the opening day of the debate in December. So what happens then?
Delegates at our Party Conference last September overwhelmingly supported a motion which set out Labour’s approach on the next steps. Governments that can no longer govern must go, and that will be the position if they cannot secure support for their deal. That is why Labour will seek a majority in the House of Commons for a General Election to break the deadlock. If the Tories run scared from facing voters and block an election, we will use every tool at our disposal to protect the country – and that includes retaining the option of campaigning for a further public vote, with ‘remain’ as an option on the ballot paper.