Many people may not have expected that, by opening the Brexit box in the 2016 referendum, we would still be working through the consequences. But separating the UK from the European Union is probably the biggest constitutional, economic and societal change of the past fifty years – so it was never going to be straightforward. Those who promised it would be the “easiest thing” in history were deliberately misleading people into voting ‘leave’. In our modern global economy, there are millions of jobs and livelihoods bound up into this.
Lots has happened this week. Boris Johnson struck a draft withdrawal agreement and ‘political declaration on the future relationship’ on Thursday with the other leaders of the EU27 states. This Johnson deal is considerably more harmful for the UK’s prospects than even Theresa May’s deal. This is because:
- the future plans would herald widespread divergence from higher EU standards and deregulation within the UK
- the notion of a ‘level playing field’ on social, environmental and employment standards in Theresa May’s deal has been downgraded from the enforceable Withdrawal Agreement instead to the unenforceable political declaration
- the Johnson plan involves treacle-like border checks and customs administration for Britain
- the plan leaves in limbo the questions of security arrangements, and also for the services industries
- he is proposing a new border in the Irish sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who will remain in the EU customs union and single market whereas the rest of us will have to enduring customs checks and costs. Unsurprisingly many in Northern Ireland dislike that they are both leaving the EU and becoming rule-takers, but also being placed in a separate effective jurisdiction than Britain. The Government have thrown their long-standing allies the DUP under the bus on this, and the DUP voted against the Government as a result
I was in Parliament all day on Saturday, the first such sitting since the Falklands war, to vote on the Johnson plan. I urged the Prime Minister to reveal the economic impact assessment of his deal, but he refused to do so. Sir Oliver Letwin proposed an amendment as an ‘insurance policy’ against a no-deal crash-out (because if Johnson got his motion through, the safeguarding Benn Act would be disposed of and hard Brexiteer Tories could then resume pursuit of their no deal preferred route).
Letwin’s amendment won by 322 to 306 votes. So the Commons resolved that it had considered the Johnson plan, but withheld approval unless and until full legislation to ratify the withdrawal agreement is passed. As a result, Johnson was forced to send the letter requesting an extension beyond October 31st to the EU Council – and quite right too.
This is such a serious issue, it’s too momentous to be rubber-stamped out of impatience or frustration. We are far more likely to bring this whole issue to a conclusion sooner with a final say for the public in a People’s Vote – for which a million people came to London to march for yesterday.
This coming week will be equally busy. Tomorrow Ministers will attempt to re-run the Saturday vote, and I hope the Speaker will rule this out of order. We will then start debating the Government’s full Bill on withdrawal, which will be published tomorrow. This shouldn’t be rushed just for the sake of Johnson’s political deadline. There is too much at stake. And I will do what I can to scrutinise this closely, and support a confirmatory public vote with ‘remain’ as an option on the ballot paper.