A year ago today, the UK voted by a narrow but clear margin to leave the European Union. The Government that called the referendum hadn’t planned for the result and the Prime Minister who led us down that path left it for others to deal with the consequences. Fast forward a year and things are looking different, yet somehow very familiar.
Putting the management of the Conservative Party before the interests of the country, another Tory Prime Minister has misread the British electorate and utterly failed to prepare for the consequences. Whether Theresa May survives to see the Brexit negotiations through is a distraction from the bigger question – what will Brexit now look like?
Theresa May called the snap election to secure a mandate for a ‘hard Brexit’. She didn’t get it. So the debate has reopened about how exactly we implement last summer’s vote to leave. For too long, the Prime Minister has brushed aside scrutiny of her plans for Brexit as attempts to frustrate the ‘will of the people’.
Labour’s push for a Brexit White Paper and for Parliament to be given a say on the final Brexit deal before it’s agreed were nothing of the sort – they provide the kind of scrutiny and accountability that is necessary if we are to get the best possible deal in these hugely complex negotiations and, crucially, unite what is becoming an increasingly divided country.
The ‘no questions please’ approach cannot continue. The General Election result has seen many of the Prime Minister’s own senior colleagues emboldened to challenge the Brexit direction under her Government as outlined in her Lancaster House speech. Talk has mostly been focussed on the merits of continued single market and customs union membership – both ruled out in her speech and the subsequent Tory manifesto because of the insistence in making migration and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice red lines.
Labour’s approach couldn’t be more different. We say that negotiations should put the economy and the livelihoods of the British people first. We shouldn’t limit our options in achieving that objective. That means options should not be taken off the table before we start.
But there is an important strand missing from the newly opened up debate, and that’s around the rights and protections we have acquired during 44 years of EU membership, and where we will stand as they evolve. How will we ensure it isn’t workers, consumers or our environment that are bargained away in the fight to stay competitive outside the EU? And who will police any guarantees the Government of the day makes on those fronts?
In the Queen’s Speech, the Government returned to their commitment to incorporate all existing EU standards into domestic law via the so-called ‘Great Repeal Bill’, but that only goes so far. Any attempts to water that commitment down will be strongly resisted by Labour, but the key is what happens next.
What standards will apply and who will police them? It’s not just workers who will lose out if protections – like rights for agency workers or protections for those on zero hours contracts – don’t keep up as economies change. The question of regulatory equivalence and enforcement is key to the trade argument too: our adherence to the body of EU law, and to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) as its overseer, provides certainty about the standards for doing business here, thereby improving our attractiveness as a trading partner.
The signs from the Government on this are worrying. In evidence to the Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee DEFRA Parliamentary Under Secretary Therese Coffey MP stated “it is the role of Parliament to hold the Government to account”. Whilst it’s true that Parliamentary Select Committees have added an important level of scrutiny to Government departments, no one can argue that they have the power to compel the Government to act.
Ms Coffey added in evidence to the Committee “The Government are accountable ultimately through the ballot box, but … the law is there and, if people believe that we are not complying with the law, they can take the Government to court about it”. Again, the idea that the public can hold the Government to account for breach of air pollution levels or employment standards in a General Election every 5 years is absurd.
The costly and time-consuming process of taking the Government to court is beyond most people. That sort of accountability is currently provided by action from the European Commission and crucially the Commission has the power to fine the Government, while our courts do not. As Alan Andrews of ClientEarth told the same Lords sub-committee, “the main driver behind [the Government’s] new air quality plan was not the Supreme Court order from the UK in 2015, but the threat of being infracted by the Commission. They aimed to comply based on when they thought the Commission might move to issuing fines.”
So whilst Labour will be scrutinising the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to ensure all the substantive rights people enjoy will still be protected post-Brexit, an equal challenge to the Government is how these rights will be secured. ‘Vote me out in five years if you don’t like it or invest your own time and money to possibly get a result’ simply won’t do.
These issues are also central to persuading our most important trading partner of our commitment to a level playing field, and thereby securing a good UK-EU trade deal. On the last day Parliament was sitting before the General Election, I challenged the now dismissed Brexit Minister David Jones to commit to “a level playing field in terms of competition” by protecting the same social and environmental standards.
He refused. Labour will not let this central issue go away. An effective trade deal, with the jobs that depend on it, is at stake. So are the rights and protections that people want.
By Paul Blomfield MP, Labour Shadow Brexit Minister