More than two years after the referendum, the long awaited White Paper outlining the government’s proposed negotiating position for the future relationship appeared – after Theresa May had to lock her Cabinet members in Chequers for the day and confiscate their phones. However, if it was not quite dead on arrival – due to the resignations of David Davis the Brexit Secretary and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – the deliberate wrecking amendments added by the right-wing anti-European faction of MPs led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, which were only won by the narrowest (and controversial) of margins, certainly delivered a fatal blow. The incoming Secretary of State for Brexit, Dominic Raab, who has openly declared his intention to roll back workers’ rights, now takes over negotiations with only 13 weeks to go until the target date for reaching agreement.
As Michel Barnier made clear the day after their first meeting, there are still more questions than answers for the UK on the Withdrawal Agreement – notably the Irish border issue – let alone consideration of the future trading relationship. The proposals from the UK government are so complicated that Theresa May was unable to explain them satisfactorily to the Commons Liaison Committee. They would add a bureaucratic burden to traders, to Customs & Excise and to EU states and they would require the EU to compromise the integrity of its internal market as well as split the EU’s “four freedoms of movement” (goods, services, people and capital). The EU has repeatedly explained that these are non-negotiable.
It is indeed the UK government’s own red lines – ruling out a customs union, single market rules or any role for the European Court in settling any disputes about jointly agreed rules – that mean that the only deal left open for the UK outside the EU is that of a low level Free Trade Agreement, which will result in more barriers and less trade than now. Even the government’s own figures show that a FTA will seriously damage the economy. The government’s position would also fail to protect the workplace, consumer, and environmental rights and standards that UK citizens currently enjoy, which is a major concern for us, but also for other EU countries who fear that Britain will trigger a race to the bottom in such standards.
Having ruled out option after option to appease the Brexit hardliners in her party, it is increasingly clear that whatever deal Theresa May comes back with will be a job-destroying Brexit with less trade, diminished rights and a high cost to the exchequer – a future that bears no resemblance to the promises made by Brexiters two years ago.
Labour is committed to voting against any proposed deal that does not meet its six tests or fails to keep the UK in a customs union with no hard border in Ireland. Defeating such a deal when it comes back to be voted on in the Commons could also trigger an early election, if this miserable government has not fallen before then. It would in any case mean that Brexit will have to be re-negotiated or re-considered entirely, with the potential of a referendum (some are already calling for a “People’s Vote”) on the final deal gathering considerable momentum in the past few months as a possible vehicle for resolving this.