There is no doubt about it: this Conservative Government is hurtling like a runaway train towards a hard, ideological Brexit, with a weak Prime Minister lacking the guts to stand up to the reckless right-wingers sitting in the driving seat. From the moment Theresa May gave her Lancaster House speech in January setting out her approach, there could be no doubt about it and we should not be afraid of saying so.
Having promised during the referendum campaign that Britain would secure a beneficial new relationship with the European Union, covering all areas from trade to security, these right-wingers are now talking up the prospect of Britain leaving with no deal at all, as the lies and myths they told the British people become a reality – a calamitous outcome for our country, and especially for working people.
Aided and abetted by their cheerleaders in the print media, the right-wingers think they can get away with it. The Labour Party – as the principal Opposition – must make sure they don’t. Our job is to put pressure on the Government to bring this train to a halt and hold them to account for the damage they are doing. Above all, we must spell out in technicolour the kind of post-Brexit Britain the extreme Brexiteers driving the Government’s agenda seek to create and make clear – whether you voted Remain or Leave – that there is a better alternative that can unite our country. So far, Labour has failed to do this clearly and effectively; now we must step up to the plate and do so.
Article 50, implementing the referendum result, simply marked the beginning, not the end, of this process. Those who claim the Article 50 bill was the only vehicle through which to put up resistance to an extreme hard Brexit are mistaken. There is no deal currently on the table for Parliament to consider – when it takes shape, Parliament will get a vote. And there will be plenty of opportunities over the next two years to thwart the extreme course the Tory right want to take this country, with the Great Repeal Bill, the finance bills implementing forthcoming budgets, and in other legislation. The Lib Dems, Greens and SNP will resist a hard Brexit too, but they represent parts of the UK; only Labour can speak for all of it and unite Britain.
The Government likes to present its strategy in the language of moderation. But what is it that illustrates a hard Brexit is their intended destination? Theresa May took membership of the single market and customs union off the table unilaterally before negotiations had even begun – despite this being the best possible outcome for our trade, nearly half of which is with the European Union. Our vital security relationships with Europe – which ministers earlier promised would be “enhanced” – have been reduced to bargaining chips in the negotiations. Likewise, the status of EU citizens living in the UK – human beings who have become “cards” in a game of poker, to use International Trade Secretary Liam Fox’s disgraceful analogy.
Why have they gone down this route? To secure changes to our immigration policy and legal status that even the Prime Minister now admits are likely to be unachievable. They say single market membership is incompatible with lowering immigration, and therefore it must be given up, without even trying to reach an agreement that gives us more control over the system. But now both the Prime Minister and David Davis admit that immigration is unlikely to fall after Brexit in any event. Pulling out of the single market has also been justified in terms of sovereignty – that Britain has to escape the rulings of the European Court of Justice. But Theresa May has since conceded that the UK will remain a “rule-taker” whether we are in the single market or out.
So the Government’s position makes no sense in terms of the best outcome for Britain, but makes all the sense in the world from the perspective of internal Tory party politics which, of course, led to the referendum being held in the first place.
The Prime Minister is scared stiff of the hard right of her party – the people who campaigned for Brexit, helped destroy David Cameron, and would destroy her if she questioned their ideology. Their vision of Brexit is the so-called alternative economic model briefly threatened by the Chancellor – rights at work slashed, public services starved of funding and sold off, taxes on the rich lowered. They believe the economic dislocation caused by leaving with no deal at all would be a small price to pay to achieve what they have always wanted. Priti Patel, for example, said during the referendum that she wanted to halve EU regulations – many of which protect workers from unfair treatment. Liam Fox has argued for cuts in what he calls the “wasteful” NHS.
They will seek to use the so-called EU divorce bill as an excuse to leave without a deal. But doing so would most likely cost a great deal more and be the worst possible option for our economy – as Treasury analysis before the referendum made clear. We would face swingeing tariffs on our exports, hitting trade and putting jobs at risk. Customs checks and divergent regulations would place huge bureaucratic costs on our businesses. Incredibly, the Government has admitted that it has not analysed the economic consequences of such a scenario – surely because everyone in it knows full well what the answer would be.
So we must expose these Tory failings and set out our alternative. We must put a very clear price tag on Brexit with no deal – making clear the cost, in higher prices and lower wages, fewer jobs and starved public services – to British working people. At the same time, we must make clear that the Government should do everything to retain our links with Europe in Britain’s national interest. That means fighting for single market membership, strengthening our security ties, retaining EU rules that protect rights at work and our environment, and committing to a customs deal that delivers the “exact same benefits” that we have now, as David Davis promised. Whichever way people voted last year in the referendum, they did not vote to become worse off, or to endorse the extreme fantasies of a section of the Tory party. Over the next couple of years, it is our duty to ensure those fantasies remain a fiction.
Chuka Umunna is the Labour MP for Streatham and Chair of Vote Leave Watch