Parliament is in recess this week, providing some time to reflect on the Brexit impasse after another dramatic week. It started with the return of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill, to the Commons from the Lords. I had led for Labour’s front bench the previous week (see my speech here), backing the Bill, which gave Parliament the power to require the Prime Minister to seek an extension to the article 50 process.
Last Monday I spoke briefly (see here) supporting the Bill and the amendments made by the Lords, but the Prime Minister had already written to the President of the European Council indicating her intention to seek an extension until 30th June. Late into Wednesday night the European Council (the elected leaders of all EU countries) decided that another short extension would not give the time needed and therefore extended Article 50 to 31st October, with an option to leave sooner if requested by the UK.
On Thursday I was on Labour’s front bench as Theresa May reported back from the European Council, facing fury from the Brexit extremists on her backbenches for taking us beyond a second planned departure date. Much of their anger focused on the fact that the UK will now be participating in elections to the European Parliament on 23 May, unless she gets a deal approved by the UK Parliament before then.
Although it’s not ideal to be participating in elections given the current uncertainty, we shouldn’t see it as a problem. As I told the Commons 3rd April, if we had a longer extension it would be right to have a voice in EU institutions. So preparations are now underway for the elections.
The focus now is now on the talks initiated with Labour by the Government. As she spoke to the Commons last Thursday, Theresa May talked of the need for compromise, but has showed no sign of it herself. Jeremy Corbyn set out Labour’s proposals in a letter to the Prime Minister on 6th February talked about and I repeated it in the Commons on 3rd April:
“We have set out clearly the framework on which we will be seeking the compromise that the Prime Minister talked about last night: a permanent and comprehensive customs union; close alignment with the single market; dynamic alignment on rights and protections; clear commitments on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes; and unambiguous agreements on future security arrangements. We have also been clear in our support for a confirmatory public vote on any deal that comes about at this very late stage.”
The talks are continuing through the recess, but they are increasingly overshadowed by the coming Conservative leadership contest. As the candidates pitch to the 120,000 Tory members who will decide the next Prime Minister, they know that victory will go to whoever promises the hardest Brexit. So their bitter party division over Europe, which led David Cameron to call the referendum, continues to threaten our country.
Labour will continue in the talks to see whether the Prime Minister is prepared to drop the red lines that so badly limited her negotiations with the EU27 and have created the damaging situation that we are now in.