The most remarkable thing about the votes in the House of Commons on the amendments that sought to frustrate the Brexit process last month was not how close they were but how close the results were to those of the referendum in 2016.
On the two most significant wrecking amendments – that in the name of Dominic Grieve seeking to ensure six and half hours of debate on Brexit in the Commons on six successive Tuesdays on amendable motions and the other in the name of Yvette Cooper seeking to override long-standing Commons Standing Orders and bring a bill which would direct the Prime Minister to seek an extension of the Article 50 period until 31st December 2019 – the percentage votes were exactly the same as those cast in the 2016 referendum: 48% for and 52% against.
Such voting figures in a Parliament that’s predominantly Remain is a testament to the underlying strength of British democracy and the societal robustness of the UK.
Parliamentarians may strut the national stage with the self-importance of those who have the power to legislate, making interminable speeches and debating the finer points of Brexit, but in this drama, it’s the working people who are in the driving seat and they have already written the script.
The EU – who are not used to any form democratic control – find this hugely frustrating. Their frustrations is beginning to boil over as we approach our departure date. With no sign of the British people wavering on Brexit and the prospect of a second referendum all but dead, they resort to abuse and insult talking about a “place in hell” for those who voted Leave, a sure sign of desperation. We are winning, we are leaving the EU, and though tempting, we need not respond in kind.
Jeremy Corbyn’s recent ground-breaking letter to the Prime Minister is the strongest indication that Labour will keep its promise to respect the referendum result to Leave the EU and of Labour’s intention to ensure an orderly departure in March. The letter rightly dismisses Keir Starmer’s farcical six tests and presents no principled opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop. All of Labour’s stated demands can be implemented within the current provisions of Withdrawal Agreement.
Some of Corbyn’s demands on workers’ rights and standards, for instance, have already been conceded, and participation in EU agencies and future security are uncontentious. However, having a customs union and close ties to the single market would be difficult for Theresa May to accept and once the caveats that Labour will undoubtedly place on these proposals as far as state aid, VAT and independent trade policy are concerned, it wouldn’t be acceptable to the EU either.
The EU’s initial response welcoming Corbyn’s letter is tactical and has no substance: they would rather deal with May any day of the week than Corbyn, who is fundamentally opposed to everything the EU stands for.
But that doesn’t diminish the letter’s importance. If the Prime Minister goes some way towards Corbyn’s position, such as providing guarantees on workers’ rights, participation in EU agencies and security, while indicating her willingness to consider the other issues in the course of the forthcoming negotiations on our relations with the EU, it would make it all but impossible for Labour to oppose an agreement to which it has no principle objection.
Labour may not be able to support it, but it dare not oppose it for fear of postponing Brexit or reversing it; it may have to go for abstention, either formally or implicitly by making it clear that Labour MPs may absent themselves from the vote. There are enough Labour MPs to ensure a deal is passed by a decent majority.
The threat to Theresa May in such a scenario where she depends on Labour to get the Withdrawal Agreement through is highly exaggerated. Far from weakening her, she would be strengthened by the mere fact that she delivered Brexit as she promised and restored the sovereignty of the British people as demanded by the EU referendum.
And the importance of sovereignty could not be overemphasised or exaggerated. The day after we leave, treaties that we may have signed with the EU becomes treaties between equals – which is not the case while we are still a member of the EU – and as a sovereign state we have the right to re-negotiate or unilaterally withdraw from these treaties, regardless of whether such treaties have escape clauses or not.
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