My article for the Scotsman on how the public can take control of the Brexit process. You can also read the article on the Scotsman website here.
There are just over 30 parliamentary sitting days left in the Commons before we are due to leave the EU.
While Theresa May denies she is “running the clock down”, the reality tells a very different story.
Nearly two years since Article 50 was triggered, what happens next remains unclear. What an extraordinary situation we find ourselves in as we hurtle towards the March 29 deadline.
This week, the Prime Minister put forward her ‘plan B’ after her withdrawal deal was comprehensively rejected last week. You may have noticed that ‘plan B’ looked remarkably similar to ‘plan A’. In fact, it was nearly identical. The only difference was the letter describing it.
If the Scottish independence referendum taught us anything, it’s that politicians who fail to produce genuine plan Bs are found out by the public – as Alex Salmond discovered when he failed to outline an alternative to using the British pound in 2014.
Theresa May is treating parliament and the public like fools. That’s why she is almost certain – once again – to lose the next vote on her withdrawal deal this coming Tuesday.
It’s worth reminding ourselves why there is such opposition to Downing Street’s proposal.
First of all, this isn’t even about our future relationship with the EU post-Brexit. This is merely the divorce agreement – the terms in which we would leave the EU.
It doesn’t cover what happens after we leave and that is why there is a ‘backstop’ to the issues with the border on the island of Ireland. That explains why Number Ten appeared to be floating the dangerous idea of reopening the Good Friday Agreement, before realising that was a complete non-starter. It is an international treaty underpinned by the United Nations and ratified by referenda in the north and south of Ireland.
Nobody voted for a Brexit that would see Britain giving away control and leaving people poorer. It means paying a near £50 billion divorce bill but getting nothing in return. It is the worst of all worlds, which is why it has united both Remainers and Leavers in Parliament.
The Prime Minister has insisted she will continue making tweaks to win over MPs, but the EU has made it clear that the withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated. It is a legal text.
That is not the EU being intransigent – the Prime Minister’s red lines make this the only option for the other 27 member states. To get any movement, she would have to loosen those red lines.
Her red lines include leaving the customs union and the single market, ensuring that freedom of movement can end. That’s the freedom of movement which has allowed Brits to travel freely and live and work in European countries, and allowed the British economy to grow by addressing worker shortages in key industries.
So we’re in an almighty mess. As things stand, the default scenario the country faces is a ‘no deal’ Brexit. I fear the full impact of this catastrophic option is still misunderstood.
It means leaving the EU with no withdrawal agreement in place, falling back on World Trade Organization (WTO) trade rules. That comes with tariffs on imports and quotas, for example cars would be taxed at 10 per cent every time they crossed the UK-EU border, and dairy products would be hit with a 35 per cent tariff – hence the stockpiling of key goods.
As the EU confirmed only yesterday, it would also mean a hard border with Ireland.
A ‘no deal’ Brexit would wipe tens of billions of pounds off the UK economy, including around £14bn in Scotland, according to the CBI. A hit of that magnitude would have a devastating impact on jobs and living standards, plunging public services into crisis. And who would be the worst affected? The poorest people in society. So that’s why those of us who care about our constituents talk about taking no-deal “off the table”.
The fear is that the Prime Minister runs the clock down until March, and we automatically fall off that no-deal cliff-edge because time has run out or she bribes MPs to back her botched plan.
There are ways to prevent that happening, however.
The Article 50 timetable can be altered – either extended with the agreement of the EU or unilaterally revoked. That has to happen now regardless of the way forward.
If the Prime Minister allows us to leave the EU without a deal, her Government will be deliberately choosing to inflict untold damage on its people. That would be unforgivable.
Fortunately, while the Government flounders, many MPs are rising to the occasion. A series of amendments have been submitted, including a Labour frontbench amendment which legislates for the holding of a People’s Vote. Others seek to extend the Article 50 process.
There is, of course, little point in extending Article 50 in an attempt to tweak the withdrawal agreement, because the negotiations are over.
It should, however, be extended so that we can go back to the people of the United Kingdom and offer them a vote to decide our future.
I am open-minded about what should appear on the ballot paper, but the most obvious solution is to give voters a choice between the clear measurable propositions of Theresa May’s Brexit deal – which would confirm that the people of the UK still want to leave the EU – and keeping the best deal we already have by remaining a member state of the EU.
The Prime Minister claims that a People’s Vote would be damaging to democracy, yet it’s the devastation her deal will inflict on the country that will irreparably damage our democracy – and a ‘no deal’ more so.
It’s time to let democracy flourish and put control back in the hands of the British people. Next Tuesday gives parliament an opportunity to do that and if the Labour Party supports a People’s Vote amendment and whips to support it, we can achieve this goal.
When that time comes, I know I will put our national interest first and campaign tirelessly for the UK to remain in the EU.