Remember Thatcher’s Britain? That’s where this Brexit deal would take us

Tom Kibasi
Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images

Hopes for a second referendum on Brexit are receding, as more and more Tories show their true colours and fall in line behind Boris Johnson and his controversial deal. They have passed through all the stages of grief to arrive at acceptance of a Brexit that they know will make Britain poorer and weaker. One of their leading lights, the former home secretary Amber Rudd, explicitly acknowledged that the deal would “hurt the economy” – but she said “it’s the right thing to do because we had a referendum”.

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Pursuing an economically devastating Brexit is a choice, not a necessity. The referendum was a mandate to change the political basis of our relationship with Europe, not to terminate all our economic cooperation altogether, as envisaged in the new withdrawal agreement. The proposal would give Britain the same economic relationship with the EU as distant countries such as Mexico or Canada. That’s why the extremist interpretation of the 2016 referendum that was begun by Theresa May and accelerated by Johnson can and must be resisted. If that cannot be achieved by a second referendum – even the most ardent campaigners now accept they don’t have the numbers – then it is vital that politicians return to the arena of compromise.

The most obvious area for compromise is a customs union. The current proposal will wreak havoc in what’s left of Britain’s manufacturing sector. While manufacturing is a small percentage of the overall economy, it is vital for exports and therefore for competitiveness. Each major manufacturing sector – automotive, aerospace, food and drink, pharmaceuticals and chemicals – have warned that the government’s approach will damage their industries. A customs union would protect industry and jobs.

It would also resolve the problems for Northern Ireland. The crucial insight of the Good Friday agreement was that the different communities in Northern Ireland could be united by common means – power-sharing and the democratic determination of their future – even if they sought different ends. Imposing what amounts to a new constitutional settlement on the province plainly violates the essential spirit of the agreement.

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The second area for compromise is on workers’ rights. Johnson’s plan has removed protections of key rights and standards from the legally binding withdrawal agreement and inserted them into the political declaration, which is no more than a statement of intent. The government has promised it will make a statement to the House whenever EU workers’ rights improve, but it has not promised to match them. Johnson’s deal has been designed precisely to facilitate a race to the bottom. Not a single trade union was prepared to endorse the package.

Why would a government that was genuinely committed to workers’ rights erase those very same rights from the legal text of the withdrawal agreement? The purpose is obvious to all but those who choose not to see it. The Tories are salivating at the prospect of a decade of deregulation ahead. The power to deregulate is essential to securing a sweetheart trade deal with Donald Trump. The obvious compromise is to reinsert the minimal protections that were included in May’s agreement into the new withdrawal agreement. Given the EU has agreed to these in the past, this is plainly an option available to the government should it wish to take it.

The final area for compromise concerns the risk that no trade agreement is agreed at the conclusion of the transition period at the end of 2020. Johnson has secured the support of the members of the ERG with an agreement that they regard as merely a pit-stop on the way to a no-deal exit. And even if a deal were to be struck, the promised “parliamentary lock” – a further promise to give MPs control over the future partnership with the EU – is nothing more than a latch. The government has explicitly not promised a “meaningful vote” but rather a “form” of meaningful vote. Why would any MP trust the weasel words of a prime minister who lied to the Queen? No responsible MP should be expected to support a deal that allows Britain to crash out next year.

Labour should still press to let the people decide. This moment has strong echoes of Thatcher’s rise to power in 1979: Johnson’s deal enables the assault on working people that took place in the 1980s to be repeated again in the 2020s. The same forces – a hard-right Tory government backed by the Murdoch press – that lined up against working people then have come together again now. It is only right and proper that the public should have the final say about this fundamental choice for Britain’s future.

• Tom Kibasi is a writer and researcher on politics and economics

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