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Fri 3 April 2020
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The Conservatives’ withdrawal agreement is a ticking time bomb under our economy, rights and public services – why aren’t opposition parties or the media highlighting this to the electorate?


This is the first general election in living memory in which one of the main parties is advancing a core offer which would harm the people of our country and about which it has said next to nothing.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal agreement is an extreme text from an extreme party. The Tories know this is the case, hence their refusal to have it properly debated in Parliament and their unwillingness to talk about it during the campaign. 

The Conservative Party has tried to disguise its plans. It refuses to talk about its agreement in any detail. It proclaims the agreement to be “oven ready”, but this is an argument about its existence, not its quality. It has framed this General Election’s conversation around who can “Get Brexit Done”. The narrative has been about urgency, not whether Brexit is a good idea at all or whether Johnson’s deal is a good or bad one. 

The Conservatives have made some eye-catching pledges in their manifesto – more nurses, police officers and hospitals. But, none of these are real. Instead of 40 new hospitals, a mere six will be upgraded and 34 will get “a little bit more money“. No new money will be made available to hire new nurses.

The pledges don’t go far enough in reversing the austerity cuts made since 2010, but what they have done is deflect attention from the fact that the Conservative Party’s wider plans are continuity austerity, and from the Brexit withdrawal agreement. 

But the main deception is this: the party’s manifesto has itself been a distraction. Its real manifesto – the only manifesto that counts because it is a real, binding international treaty with huge implications for our economy and society for decades – is the withdrawal agreement. It is a seismic document for the UK and not only because of its economic implications. It puts at severe risk things of real value to the British people. It risks the NHS, which we know will be part of a future UK-US trade deal. It risks the Union, by putting a hard border down the Irish Sea and increasing the likelihood of an independent Scotland. 

The Conservatives have refused to release an impact assessment, but we know from independent assessments that the agreement would cause deep harm to our economy and, as a result, harm our public realm. We know too that its implementation would give the Conservatives free rein to abolish workers’ rights and environmental protections.

If Johnson’s deal goes through, it will fire the starting gun on a process that will harm our economy so much that economic output will plunge and public services will suffer. Income per capita would reduce by 6.4%, a cost of £2,000. That’s a sum of money that people will notice and will miss. The fiscal consequences for the Treasury will be a loss of between £40 and £50 billion a year. That’s more than we spend on public order and safety (£34 billion) and around the same as we spend on defence (£46 billion). A lower tax take means that, even if the Tories wanted to stand by their election promises, they would simply not be affordable. 

We will be outside the Customs Union and the Single Market, meaning far harsher trading terms and barriers to trade that will simply be too expensive for many businesses to cope with. There will be real world impacts – lost jobs, closed businesses, industry and manufacturing moving abroad to mainland Europe so that they can stay part of the Single Market. 

In a sense, none of this is new. This is the Brexit versus Remain argument of the last four years replayed. The tragedy for Britain is that the argument is not being had. The withdrawal agreement is a ticking time bomb under our economy, our rights and public services, yet it has received almost no scrutiny during the election campaign, from opposition parties or from the media. 

There is just over a week left of this General Election campaign – a week in which voters deserve to be told the real choice before them. Labour has been right to say that it is a choice between real change or more austerity, and there is much that is admirable in its offering. 

But, Jeremy Corbyn is missing an opportunity. What his party hasn’t said clearly enough is that the Conservatives have plans that surpass their 2010-2019 austerity programme. Brexit has provided the Tory right with an opportunity they do not intend to squander – a chance to remake our economy and public realm to their liking, with fewer safeguards, fewer rights, more insecurity and more poverty. The Britannia Unchained Tories would be in charge, with no EU regulations there to prevent them taking away rights and protections we have taken for granted for decades. 

Voters have been told that the withdrawal agreement is simply a means for getting Brexit done. A way to make the whole thing stop. They deserve to know, not just that the process would drag on for many years to come, but also that it would harm their country in ways that go far beyond a simple cut in GDP. 

In the next week, Labour must continue to win Remain voters back from minor parties and bring Labour Leave voters back into the fold. Attacking the withdrawal agreement is the perfect opportunity to do both.

For Remainers, it proves Labour’s opposition to the Tories’ Brexit. For Leavers, Labour must make clear that this is a bad deal that is not in their interests, exposing the Tory deception and making clear that a Labour-negotiated deal would be the only way to achieve a Brexit that does not cause them real harm, and that the only fair way to realise that deal is to put it to a referendum.

We have seven days left. Let’s use them well. 

Mike Buckley is the director of Labour for a Public Vote. He tweets at @mdbuckley


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