“Whether we like it or not, that is going to be the treaty that an incoming Labour government inherits and has to make work. And it is not being straight with the British public to say we can come into office in 2024 and operate some other treaty”
Anybody who has been alive from the neck up will know that the promises of Brexit have failed spectacularly. Few parts of the economy have been untouched. In some cases the harm has so far been masked by Covid and by the screams of pain from the fishing industry, which has been well and truly double-crossed.
When faced with a government which has been so incompetent and devious in its dealings, the question arises why any member of the public should trust them. It is perhaps not surprising that Covid-related restrictions are respected much less than during the first lockdown.
Equally perhaps it is not surprising that the Telegraph is filling with excuses from Brexiters who claim it is not the fault of Brexit but merely a matter of how it was done. These are the same people who cried ‘Project Fear’ at every opportunity before the truth was obvious to all. Do you believe them? If so, I have these magic beans I can sell you…
At a time like this, just when the profound harm done by Brexit is becoming apparent, the government is leaving an open goal for all the opposition parties. It feels as if Labour, for one, is not even making a serious attempt to kick at this goal. Keir Starmer, last week, on the Andrew Marr Show, appeared to rule out making significant changes to the treaty on coming to power in 3-4 years’ time. He also appeared to drop the policy, expressed in Labour’s 2019 manifesto, of restoring freedom of movement. In the first prime minister’s Question Time after Brexit started to bite, he asked not a single question about this important issue. At this week’s Fabian Society conference he again failed to make any firm commitment on Europe. And whenever he is accused by BJ of being an ‘unrepentent remainer’ he squirms in discomfort rather than wearing it as a badge of honour.
Obviously he would say in his defence that the coronavirus crisis takes precedence over Brexit. However by focusing solely on that he is giving the impression of being willing to collude with the government in using coronavirus as a smokescreen for what Brexit is doing to the country. For an opposition this is not good enough.
Many commentators who are in a position to know defend him by saying that Brexit has happened and is outside Labour’s control. By the time they come to government, if they do, it will be well bedded in. The party’s focus at the moment is on not forfeiting the voters, such as those in the Red Wall seats, who moved across to the Tories because they wanted to ‘see Brexit done’. And pro-Brexit voters are perceived as being vastly more flaky than pro-Europeans and therefore you need cultivating. This despite the fact that the latter represent the vast majority of Labour supporters and almost all surviving Labour MPs, since the merciful departure of people like Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart.
Others would argue, and I agree with them, that this is a misguided view. It is not true that pro Europeans have nowhere else to go. In order to make this obvious we need a strong and attractive Liberal Democrat Party with good pro European credentials. Ed Davey, though, to his great discredit, declining to call the LibDems a rejoin party, has at least committed to a return of freedom of movement.
Labour should not take its pro-European supporters for granted, it still has to earn their respect.
Both parties are shown up by the SNP, which is making the most articulate and vociferous pro-European case. Ian Blackford has been relentless in pointing out the problems created for his country and the fact that this government, even if it tried, could not do more to alienate Scottish voters. There is even a theory that this is BJ’s intention and that he would not mourn the loss of Scotland to the union. It is entirely possible that by the time of the next election in 2024 there will no longer be any SNP presence at Westminster. Many of us would miss them. And of course Scottish independence would in all likelihood copperfasten Tory rule, in spite of the party’s appalling track record.
At a time like this, the English opposition parties would do well to think how the electoral landscape will have changed by 2024. It will be obvious that the government promise to “get Brexit done” was fraudulent. The country will still be mired in difficult negotiations with the European Union. The ability to travel and trade with European countries will have affected many more voters and their jobs and quality of life. The folly of Brexit will be apparent.
In spite of the propaganda of the right wing press, and in spite of the attempts to blame the EU, many of the pro Brexit voters Labour is currently trying to court will have ceased to be that. The trend of disillusionment, already well established, can only accelerate. Labour needs to be able to recapture them on the rebound from their voyage of delusion. If Labour is seen to be complicit in Brexit that will be difficult.
It is much too soon for Labour to talk about a policy of rejoining. However, it seems obvious that to rule it out, or even to refuse to consider renegotiation of the treaty when that falls due in five years’ time, would be a mistake of epic proportions. Meanwhile, there is nothing to stop Labour from taking the initiative on practical tweaks to deal with the current crisis. Perhaps service industries are where most needs to be done. And then there is agriculture, work permits, Erasmus and recognition of professional qualifications etc etc. David Henig has articulated some realistic short to medium term goals. And unless the opposition parties learn to work together the Tory policy of Divide and Rule will succeed.
At a time like this we need constructive engagement, not acquiescence. The country needs an effective opposition, and there is much to oppose.
Ed: This is an edited version of a blog which appeared on the Oxford For Europe website. The views stated here are those of the author.