This week’s narrow votes on the trade bill was a major victory for the hard Brexiteers. Theresa May’s government has effectively killed off its own Chequers plan and laid the road for a Brexit based on deregulation and liberalisation. And while they were at it, they stamped on attempts to give parliament sovereignty over trade policy, just to make sure no pesky MP could get in the way of their plans for a free-market “Singapore-on-Thames”.
The next day the trade secretary, Liam Fox, lost no time in launching consultations on joining the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) as well as a trade deal with the US. Britain’s distance from the Pacific is apparently no obstacle. Both the TPP and a US trade deal would lower standards, undermine public services like the NHS and make it more difficult for us to protect the environment. They are incompatible with the frictionless trade in goods with the EU May promised at Chequers. Donald Trump told the government as much last weekend.
Trump’s intervention helped empower hard-right Conservative MPs, who then threatened to vote against May unless they got what they wanted. In response, May threatened to call a general election unless an amendment that wasn’t so very different from May’s own Chequers position was defeated. Twelve Tories understood the consequences and rebelled. May was only saved by the intervention of four Labour Brexiteers.
This was one of the most significant parliamentary votes since the EU referendum. Why? Because for the hardcore Brexiteers, unlike most people who voted to leave the EU, Brexit isn’t really about sovereignty or immigration per se, it’s about trade policy. Through trade policy, the political right can deregulate and liberalise the British economy with virtually no oversight from parliament or the public. In fact, they must hope that the economic dislocation caused by a break with the EU will provide a once-in-a-generation panic conducive to signing any trade deal going.
The TPP fits the bill nicely. It is a mechanism that Fox wants to use to create his economic paradise and push us away from the EU. The deal, which includes Australia, Japan, Mexico, Peru and Vietnam, is so toxic that even its main proponent, the US, pulled out, following major struggles across US involving unions, environmentalists and progressive politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
Just like it’s better known cousin, TTIP (the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership deal between the EU and US), the TPP was dreamed up by big business, and has less to do with trade than making life more profitable for transnational corporations. That means standardising (read: lowering) regulations. Hormone-fed, steroid-filled and chlorine-washed meat must be allowed into your markets or you’ll be accused of obstructing free trade.
TPP would allow big financial players to challenge government rules to regulate banks or clamp down on risky financial products. It would hand the tech giants like Google and Amazon much greater power to use – and abuse – your data. It would extend the monopoly rights of big pharmaceutical corporations, cutting off the citizens of poorer countries from affordable life-saving drugs, while also making it harder for the NHS to negotiate cheaper prices for medicines. It would gut the ability of local government to use taxes to stimulate local farming and the local economy.
Just as with the TTIP, TPP includes a toxic “corporate court” system, which gives transnational corporations a special arbitration system to sue governments when they enact any policy that the investor doesn’t like. Putting cigarettes in plain packaging, banning dangerous chemicals, raising the minimum wage, stopping polluting power plants being built – anything that might affect big business’s bottom line can lead to a claim being lodged.
They must hope the dislocation caused will provide a once-in-a-generation panic conducive to signing any deal going
Liam Fox is a great fan of the TPP. The TPP represents a long-term ambition to fundamentally reorient the UK towards a glorious low-regulation, “free-market” future. Fox claims we have no need to worry. After all, wasn’t TTIP stopped by European politicians? The problem is that European politicians, while derided by hard Brexiteers for being powerless, actually had a real say over TTIP. They could read all the negotiating texts. They could publicly debate impact assessment to make their case. And they could, ultimately, vote to stop it.
On Tuesday, the government decided it would be wrong for our own MPs to have similar powers. An amendment by the Green MP Caroline Lucas would have given MPs the final say over any trade deal negotiated, as well as proper scrutiny powers to hold the government to account. The amendment would have done nothing to get in the way of leaving the EU, it would simply have returned full sovereignty to parliament. But it would have endangered the hard Brexiteers plans for our country. So despite support from Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru, the amendment fell by 30 votes.
Of course, Fox is working away on numerous deals already. More than a dozen working groups have been set up with other countries, but neither MPs nor the public are allowed to know what’s discussed, or even when the working groups meet. Leaked information has been obtained from the US and Indian governments – but nothing from our own “world class” freedom of information powers. We’re now being consulted on trade deals with the US, Australia and New Zealand, but with no real information as to what these deals would mean for us, though they would affect all of us in quite profound ways.
It’s not too late to stop all this. The trade bill now goes to the Lords, where amendments are likely. When it returns to the Commons we know to expect more arm-twisting and bullying. But MPs must stand up: this is epoch-defining stuff. There is still time to stop a “Liam Fox Brexit”. But it’s running out.
• Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now