The clock continues to run down, with just ten weeks until we leave the EU and with no sign of any shift in Government thinking following the massive vote against their Brexit deal last week. Shockingly, if not surprisingly, the Prime Minister had nothing new to say when she responded to that defeat yesterday in the Commons. She made it clear that she would not change any of the red lines that had boxed her in throughout the negotiations with the EU27.
Last week’s vote came at the end of several days of debate on the two documents that constitute her Brexit deal – the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement and the very vague Political Declaration on the Framework for the Future Relationship – that had started on 4th December. That day, the Prime Minister opened the debate for the Government and I closed for the Opposition (you can watch my speech here or read it here).
We had been expecting five days of debate leading to a vote on 11th December, but with an overwhelming defeat inevitable, the Prime Minister postponed it until last week. After a wasted month her defeat last week was even bigger than expected in December, but still she is ploughing on regardless trying to win over the ‘Brexit extremists’, as the Chancellor described them, rather than reach out to the majority – putting party before country again.
What has become even 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. Our universities, a sector that is crucial to Sheffield and supports 944,000 jobs across the country, recently described ‘no deal’ as one of the biggest threats they have ever faced. Despite spending £4.2 billion, that could be better used on public services, the Government is totally unprepared for ‘no deal’ – highlighted by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s decision to award a £13.8m ferry to a company with no ships.
‘No deal’ 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, and I’ll be pushing Ministers on it again this week. I’m pleased that the Government have finally conceded that ‘settled status’ should be free, as we’ve said from the start, but there are still unresolved issues for EU citizens in the UK and the 1.2 million Brits living and working in the EU.
The Prime Minister’s strategy has always 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.
Labour will not be bullied into this binary choice. We have 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 continue to oppose them.
So what will happen over the days ahead? Above all, we will seek to work across parties to translate the majority that exists in Parliament against ‘no deal’ into effective action to prevent the Government jeopardising our economy, and putting the jobs and livelihoods of our people at risk, by crashing out of the EU on 29th March without a deal.
Governments that can no longer govern must go, and that’s why Labour sought a majority in the House of Commons last week for a General Election to break the deadlock. Although that vote was lost, we will continue to make the case. We will also be actively considering the other options to Theresa May’s failed deal, in line with the decision of our Party Conference last September; which are essentially the close economic relationship with the EU that we have been seeking as well as the option of a further public vote – as my colleague Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer set out in more detail in a speech on Saturday.