Could we please have a real-world Labour Brexit policy?

by Jonathan Todd

Theresa May is right. It is:

  • Her Brexit
  • No deal Brexit
  • Or no Brexit

If you are not choosing from that menu, you are at an imaginary restaurant. Which five members of the Cabinet, the so-called European Research Group, and the Labour leadership, unfortunately, are.

There is, according to the BBC’s Europe Editor, zero appetite in EU circles to renegotiate May’s withdrawal deal. “We have a document on the table that has been adopted by the EU and the UK, and so for me, the question of further negotiations does not arise,” Angela Merkel said.

But Andrea Leadsom demurs. She aims to tweak May’s deal. John McDonnell goes further. He wants a completely different agreement by next March.

In the real-world, there are three possible ways forward:

First, May’s deal. The lack of advocates for this deal has reduced May to comparisons with Thatcher’s final days. It is also reminiscent of the period immediately after the 2010 general election. Then, as now, it was apparent that the prime minister did not have the numbers.

There is, however, a plausible argument to say:

While imperfect, this withdrawal agreement takes the UK out of the EU, we accept it and are focusing upon the long-term relationship between the UK and the EU, which remains to be determined.

As the UK, under any leadership, will be incapable of securing a long-term relationship that improves upon our current one, this would not seem a particularly compelling argument. But it would – in contrast, to much of what we hear from May’s critics – be a real-world one.

As is the second possible way forward, no deal. An option that entails turning Kent into a car park, risks shortages of food and medicines, and inflicts deep damage to the UK’s economy and international standing should not be considered serious. But it is – unlike, again, re-negotiating May’s withdrawal terms – real.

There are disaster capitalists and disaster communists attracted to this. The greater the mess we inherit, the more radical we have to be, they both think. Whether they hanker for a dramatic curtailment or expansion of the state, it requires the conviction of zealots to advance this.

Finally, unlike these ruptures of rightist and leftist fantasy, there is the continuity of no Brexit. Confirming that, despite the rolling fiasco that we have subjected our European partners to, the EU would welcome the UK remaining a member, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, recently noted that, “we are best prepared for a no Brexit scenario.”

This scenario requires a UK prime minister to revoke Article 50. Such an action is likely dependent upon a referendum reversing the verdict of June 2016. In addition to the EU granting an extension to Article 50 (as the time required for a referendum now probably runs beyond March 2019), a referendum depends upon a prime minister granting one, which would occur if:

  • Theresa May lost a Commons vote on her deal and decided to seek a popular mandate for it via a referendum (though, a general election might be her preferred method for doing so and even if she did acquiesce to a referendum, she might seek this between her deal and no deal)
  • Labour wins a general election and grants a referendum (but if the Conservatives remain united against a general election, the Fixed Term Parliament Act insulates them from one)
  • A national government forms with the specific purpose of overseeing a referendum.

In this parliament, all Labour, SNP, Liberal Democrat, Green and Plaid Cymru MPs could not win a vote in favour of a referendum if all Conservative MPs voted against. Even if enough Conservative MPs voted in favour of a referendum, the view of the legislature changes nothing without executive willingness. Which, on current policies, requires a different executive. Short of a general election victory for Labour, this depends on some cohort of Conservatives not only supporting a referendum but backing the formation of a national government to bring it about.

The uncertainty following the 2010 general election ended with the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. Similarly, we might move beyond May’s apparent lack of numbers by the creation of another new kind of government: a national government to deliver a referendum.

Seeking such a government would be a real-world Labour Brexit policy. As would be acceptance of no deal – just as LSD is real, but highly disorientating. Supporting May’s withdrawal terms, while seeking to bring the UK’s long-term relationship with the EU more in line with Labour’s preferences, is the final real-world option – though, through Labour’s rejection of these withdrawal terms, this option has effectively already been closed-off.

In various ways, all these possibilities could combine with support for bringing about a Labour government in a general election. But none combine with the delusion that Labour could achieve utterly changed withdrawal terms by next March.

We deserve a Labour policy that exists in the real-world and the least bad of these options is to take the steps necessary to bring about a referendum, with Remain both on the ballot and backed by Labour.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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18 Responses to “Could we please have a real-world Labour Brexit policy?”

  1. Anne says:

    Totally agree with this article.

  2. John P Reid says:

    there’s about 20 things wrong with the Deal she’s got about 2 weeks to sort them ,most notable the NI border customs unions, otherwise Caroline flint and John Mann should vote no deal (which is of course what jez wants but he neglects the fact there’s actually a lot of good in the deal

  3. Alf says:

    Chuka could form his new Tory-lite party and team up with the proper Tories in a government of national unity. The new party would then support May’s deal and keep the Tories in power.

  4. paul barker says:

    The problem with this argument is that Corbyn was elected as Leader because he doesnt live in the Real World, thats why his fans love him. And his Fans still seem to be in the majority among Labour Members.

  5. steve says:

    “… bring about a referendum, with Remain both on the ballot and backed by Labour.”

    This would be a retreat into a Blairite fantasy land.

    If the Labour Party followed Jonathan’s advise it would very soon find itself languishing in the political oblivion that has enveloped Jim Murphy and his Scottish Blairites.

    On the other hand, the Labour Party in the business of winning general elections and so must be sensible and respect the referendum result.

  6. Anne says:

    I understand that Nicola Sturgeon has gone to Westminster to sound out support for a coalition of parties in order develop support for a better approach to Brexit – she wants, at minimum, a customs union and single market. I have a great deal of sympathy for the Scots – they did not vote for Brexit nor have they been mentioned in any part of Mrs May’s draft policy. I think that having a “National” party approach would product a fairer outcome which represents all of the U.K.

  7. John P Reid says:

    Don’t normally agree with Rob Francis , but

  8. Tafia says:

    Some words from my former Commanding Officer and now MP Col (retd) Bob Stewart DSO. This is a man who throughout the rferendum and right up until a few days ago was a Remainer. Since May’s deal although still a Remainer at heart he is now accepting of Leave- No Deal.

    He is a man I know well in the most extreme of circumstances and I would follow him anywhere, anytime without hesitation.



    When the Referendum took place on 23 June 2016 we were asked one simple question; did we want to remain in the European Union or not? The answer was ‘No’ – by a margin of almost 4 per cent across the country.

    In my constituency of Beckenham that margin was much closer with those that wanted to remain being just more than those that wanted to leave (but less than one per cent). My postbag confirms this too. On BREXIT about half of my constituents argue that we should scrap the Referendum result and stay in the European Union whilst the other half ask why we are simply not leaving immediately as directed by that result.

    Since June 2016 the negotiations to leave the European Union have been hugely disappointing as far as I am concerned. Our negotiators have bent over backwards to make a deal with Brussels and such efforts are not reciprocated as the other side believes (with some justification) that the British Government seems not to want to leave; so not one single concession of substance has been made.

    I have negotiated many deals myself – admittedly they were mainly ceasefire deals in the Bosnian conflict when I was the British UN Commander there – but the principles of bargaining are much the same. But one thing I realised is that in arbitration you must start with a clear idea of what you want, with red lines that are clear and a determination to negotiate well. To do otherwise is dangerous and looks weak; indeed it could be interpreted as capitulation. We seem to have offered so much to the European Union and it has offered back – precisely nothing.

    We saw this when our then Prime Minister, David Cameron went to Brussels to get some concessions which he could then sell to the British people to convince them to stay in the European Union. He achieved nought and returned with no concessions because the European Union thought that neither Mr Cameron nor indeed the British people would vote to leave. On the latter point Brussels was clearly wrong by almost 4 per cent.

    Thereafter it has been much the same story. The European Union believes Mrs May is so desperate for a deal that she will accept one at any price. But that price seems mighty high to me if the deal we have on the table is it. I totally understand why Brussels is so against the UK leaving the European Union. We provide about 1/6th of its income and already it has real problems balancing its books.

    We would be shackled to Brussels by its conditions, without any say in what happens in in the European Union and consequently in the UK as well. Personally I would prefer to remain in the European Union than accept the deal offered by Mrs May.

    To me it now seems the choice is to agree Mrs May’s proposals or accept there will be no deal and we simply leave the European Union on 29 March 2018. That was and remains the date, enshrined in law, when we leave the European Union. Actually there is no time before that for anything like another referendum or indeed more negotiations of substance.

    So what does a ‘No Deal’ BREXIT look like? I will pose 6 scenarios as follows.

    1. We would not be subject to European Union regulations on trade and we would automatically have to do business according to World Trade Organisation rules. We trade according to them already – with countries such as the United States, Japan, China, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. That seems to work well enough as things stand too. Right now, of course, such countries pay a fairly healthy European Union tariff to trade with the UK and that will go so it is certainly in their interest for us to leave. For our part we could simply state that there would be no tariffs on European Union goods coming into the UK. It seems to me that there is no need for legislation on such a decision and it makes sense. It is also in the interest of European Union nations to reciprocate as they export to us double what we send to them. Standards on goods exchanged between UK and the European Union would be much as now or in other words much the same – at least in the short term.

    2. As the Prime Minister has already declared, European Union citizens living here now would have the right to stay, work, get benefits like the NHS and pensions here and, if they wish, after a while, become British citizens too. That works already for many. My own children currently have three European Union nationalities; British, French and Swiss. With regard to new people coming into the UK from the European Union that should be acceptable too; with certain conditions such as coming for work and not welfare benefits. Of course, we would expect the same for our citizens in Europe too.

    3. We would not pay much of the so-called divorce bill either. That is assumed to be about £39 billion which is well in excess of the annual Defence costs. Of course, we would need some negotiations on property and liabilities – both in the UK and on the Continent. That is not an urgent matter but would need sorting at some point in the future. Maybe there is a trade-off here too.

    4. Assuming the European Union was to impose tariffs, the very most it could charge would be about 4 per cent. According to the Office of Budget Responsibility the European Union could charge the UK about £19.2 billion annually for membership of its club. But this is reduced by the Thatcher rebate (£5 billion) and monies sent to the UK for matters like farm subsidies, universities and flood protection (£5 billion) which takes our annual donation to the European Union down to about £9.2 billion every year. That works out at about £175 million a week (the cost of a new hospital perhaps?). One hundred and seventy five million pounds a week is also the equivalent of a charge of about 7 per cent tariff on all our goods exported to the European Union. So tariffs may indeed work in our favour – in addition to the fact that the European Union would perhaps pay twice as much in British tariffs as the UK as it exports twice as much to us as we send to Europe.

    5. There’s no need on the UK’s part for a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. I ran a border crossing point at Auchnacloy in South Tyrone, Northern Ireland for 2 years once and know that using systems like Trusted Trade arrangements’, Pre-Registration documentation and cameras with vehicle number recognition features, there is absolutely no need for a hard border. Recently l have heard border/customs experts from both Sweden and the Netherlands give evidence to the Northern Ireland Select Committee (on which I sit) to the effect that a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is absolutely possible. Perhaps the UK wouldn’t be imposing tariffs on European Union goods, so there would be no dues to collect anyway. I am sure some changes may be needed but as I have already stated technology allows for smart borders. By the way for a very long time (even before we joined the European Union) Irish citizens have had the right to live and work in the UK – as well as join our armed forces by the way.

    6. Many argue vigorously that a deal with Brussels is crucial but I wonder whether they are right on this. They suggest a No Deal situation could be catastrophic for us. They suggest long queues at ports and airports, devaluation of the pound, gridlock on the Northern Ireland border, re-location of investment and businesses abroad and hoarding of medicines might be the result. Such suggestions were made prior to the Referendum but that certainly didn’t happen. Actually employment, investment and economic growth rose and not the reverse so I suspect such dire warnings could be erroneous.

    In summary, the UK has always had a global outlook and that alone has always caused tension with Brussels. Outside the European Union we could trade with whoever we liked – properly, of course, in accordance with trade deals or on World Trade Organisation rules. Personally I think too many people currently are talking Britain’s future down. I disagree with them absolutely. Whatever the situation – deal or no deal – we will (and must) make our divorce from the European Union a success. I think we will too. We are lucky to live in such a great country as the United Kingdom.

  9. Tafia says:

    This was the terms of the referendum. There are no grey areas, no ambiguity. Parliament accepted those terms overwhelmingly. Parliament put those terms into effect. Parlaiment ratified the result overwhelmingly. If Parliament now tries to impede it then it needs destroying as it is not to be trusted and full of liars.

  10. Yet according to the political pundits a Norway style Brexit could find majority support in parliament. Used as an interim agreement, even if with a long (5 year) lifespan, it would give the time needed to find a permanent answer to our membership one way or the other. It would fit most of Labour’s requirements with some clever face-saving modifications covering free movement and state aid and hardly affect our economy at all.

    Now let’s see what our ‘moderates’ want. Another referendum to try and change the result of the first. There is no guarantee that it would return a different result as the public dislike of our political class is still there and Operation Fear didn’t hack it last time. What if the last result was overturned 52%-48%. UKIP, including Tommy Robinson, would be a party reborn. I guess we would need that British Macron to put the riot police in the streets.

    Our Labour ‘moderates’ are holding guns to their own heads and shouting to us that they will shoot. I can’t really see a good outcome for them if they do.

  11. buttley says:

    Tafia says:

    “This is a man who throughout the referendum and right up until a few days ago was a Remainer”

    The above assertion is plainly not true.

    By his own admission, Bob Stewart is a long term Euro-skeptic, going back as far as the 70’s.

    …and so, as the sand castles of a no deal breggsit are washed away by the incoming tides of time……..and the Arron Banks of life, meets the Carole Cadwalladr of destiny…..

    lets meet the teams……..

  12. Tafia says:

    buttley, Bob Stewart WAS a euro-sceptic and a mild Leaver prior to and back during the 2015 GE and the early part of 2016. During the Referendum he voted Remain because of taking into consideration his second wife Claire is Swiss and his children are French. He is now a Leaver again because that was the decision of the referendum, and is erring to full Brexit as the only way of putting a line under this.

    Danny Speight – what people pushing Norway – and Canada in all it’s variants, or EEA don’t point out is that we actually have to leave with No Deal first because they have to be negotiated and the EUs own rules are that ANY future trade deals can’t start until after we have left.

  13. Henrik says:

    In the defence of Barkign Mad Bosnia Bob, being a Eurosceptic doesn’t mean you can’t be a Remainer. I was a very grudging and reluctant Remainer, myself – while being implacably opposed to the ever-closer Union and similar political initatives, I very much valued the customs union and freedom of movement.

  14. buttley says:


    Might i suggest that either you or Col Bob is wrong, you both can’t be correct.

    “My own personal choice, which I did tell people when asked, was to LEAVE – principally because I think the EU to be fundamentally undemocratic, flawed and taking too many decisions for us without reference to the UK. However the Government’s official position was to stay with Brussels but the referendum result showed that the majority of people who voted disagreed. It has cost David Cameron his job and I am very much saddened by that.”

  15. Visionzcv says:

    Testaru. Best known

  16. Clamcasevwt says:

    Manuscript is a collective name for texts

  17. Seriesywn says:

    only a few survived.

  18. Zodiacotw says:

    Western Europe also formed

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