The director of Labour for a Public Vote asks: why are none of the opposition parties using the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal to their advantage?
Politics moves fast. It’s now just over a month since Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal was first voted on in Parliament. His deal went through thanks to a few stray Labour votes and the support of most of the Tory moderates he’d thrown out of his party weeks before. But his proposed three-day debate for the deal, which would have enabled him to avoid all meaningful scrutiny, was defeated.
Johnson was far from happy and vowed to pull his deal – clearly rattled at the idea of Parliament having decent time to scrutinise the most important peacetime bill in 70 years.
What was true then remains true now: that Johnson is desperate to avoid scrutiny of his Brexit deal. He crows that he has one, but he is loathe to discuss the detail. All the more strange then that opposition parties, at least two weeks into the campaign, are giving him his wish.
On the campaign trail, Johnson’s deal has been all but forgotten. This is the Brexit election in which everyone is refusing to talk in any detail about Brexit.
The Conservatives repeat their slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ ad nauseam, but offer no detail on the content of the deal. Johnson himself is more than willing to lie, for example, telling an audience at a private dinner how wonderful it was for Northern Ireland that it could stay in the single market (the truth), and telling last night’s ITV Leader’s Debate that there would be no border down the Irish Sea (a lie).
The Tories are the only party in history to go into an election campaign with a cast iron commitment, in the form of a draft international treaty, that would decimate UK industry and manufacturing, cost many thousands of jobs, endanger the UK Union and could well precipitate the sell-off of the NHS to America. It would lead to wage cuts and the imminent loss of our EU citizenship and rights and, by December 2020, could easily take us to a ‘no deal’ Brexit. It contains no guarantees on workers’ rights and environmental regulations, meaning that we could very quickly have standards far below our EU neighbours – indeed, that is the stated aim of many in Johnson’s Cabinet.
It therefore makes sense for the Tories not to talk about it. Theresa May’s deal was hated for its severity and its UK backstop. Johnson has somehow, so far, got off the hook even though his deal is more severe and does what the right-wing European Research Group (ERG) of the Conservative Party swore blind that it could never endure by dismembering the Union of the UK and endangering the Good Friday Agreement.
So, why are the opposition parties refusing to attack the Tories on the basis of its Brexit deal? Others would see this as a golden opportunity, yet no one opposing Johnson has taken the bait. They could easily argue that whatever promises are in the Tory manifesto they will all be undeliverable – it’s impossible to offer more money for schools, hospitals and the police while at the same time passing a Brexit deal that would take a hatchet to the economy. But, so far, they have all failed to argue this case.
The reasons for this vary. What has united the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru has been a willingness to wear Remain as a badge and identity more so than using it as a point of argument. They use Remain primarily as a means to differentiate themselves from Labour which, in their eyes, is not Remain enough. The intention is to steal Remain voters from Labour, not to attack the Tories or Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
The SNP’s goals are twofold: to win more Westminster seats and to lay the ground for a second independence referendum. It is aware that, if it does well on 12 December and win big in the 2021 Holyrood elections, it would be hard for either Labour or the Conservatives to hold off a new Scottish referendum. Given that the SNP needs to win seats from all three UK parties, its focus is on Scotland and Scotland’s right to choose her future. To its credit, the SNP is adamantly anti-Tory, but its focus is on Scotland and its future in the EU – not the Johnson deal itself.
It is Labour that is missing the golden opportunity that Johnson’s deal represents. The party’s 1983 manifesto was famously dubbed the longest suicide note in history. Johnson’s deal is longer and its contents more catastrophic for the UK economy, the Union, jobs and industry than anything put forward by Michael Foot.
The reason Labour holds back is that it knows that, to keep its current seats and to win more from the Tories, it needs to not only see off the Liberal Democrat threat to its Remain voters, but also the Tory threat to steal its Leave voters. As a result, Labour has felt safer to run the General Election on the basis of anything but Brexit. To its credit, there have been many decent policies put forward.
The danger is that by not talking about Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn will let the Tories and Liberal Democrats own the issue. This is needless. Labour’s Brexit policy, while a little convoluted, is the fairest of them all and the only one to offer a true end to the Brexit saga. The only democratic endgame is a new referendum on a Leave deal versus Remain. That is what Labour offers, plain and simple.
Attacking Johnson’s deal is the solution to Labour’s problem. It will win Remain backers, who will be pleased to see Labour on the attack and clearly opposed to what they see as a ticking time bomb under, not just our economy, but also our industry, manufacturing and public services. It can also warn Leavers against voting Conservative – they may want to leave the EU, but that doesn’t mean they want to leave on Johnson’s terms, none of which would be in their interests.
Labour must have confidence in its own Brexit policy – and clearly make the case for a second referendum as the best way to get Brexit done. The alternative is Johnson’s hard Brexit followed by years of needless trade negotiations with the EU, US and others, most of which would simply be replacing better deals we have now.
Labour can win the Brexit argument by attacking Johnson’s deal – but it needs to step up to the plate.