Labour on Brexit: not believing in leaving?


What is the point of Labour’s position on Brexit?

It’s hard to tell. Or at least it’s been hard to tell, until Barry Gardiner let slip that the Labour’s stated policy position is “bollocks” (listen to audio below).

That situation is that while (1) the Labour Party campaigned to remain in the EU, (2) the referendum vote went against them. What has been tricky has been reconciling these two opposing realities. Leaving the EU will be detrimental to the country as a whole, which most within the Parliamentary Labour Party recognise. The official post-referendum policy is a hopeless papering over of cracks: that the UK would leave the EU while keeping “the exact same benefits” as staying in. I, and many others, pointed out at the time that this was a total nonsense.

Gardiner’s comment – meant to be kept private – acknowledges the impossibility of Labour’s public position. Which does beg the question: if Gardiner, and presumably everyone else, knows their policy is “bollocks” then why stick with it?

On the one hand there’s the problem that Jeremy ‘7.5‘ Corbyn has never been that keen on the EU and wasn’t exactly that upset that the UK voted to leave. The Labour Party under his leadership was never going to be full throated in its opposition to Brexit while it was led by the arch-Bennite. However, not even all Corbyn’s allies are as anti-EU as Corbyn was. So there must be another reason why Keir Starmer – an intelligent man – had to come up with such an abjectly bad position on Brexit.

Presumably it is because it is to Labour party political advantage to let the Tories get the messy business of Brexit out of the way, implode, as they surely will, and leave the way clear for the Labour Party to stroll in and form a government. It is a tactic beset with difficulty, not least that the public are not so stupid as politicians seem to think and it will become increasingly obviously how self-serving an approach it is.

More than that, though, it is a betrayal of the Labour Party’s role as an opposition. If parliamentary democracy is to work then the opposition must put forward opposing policies and scrutinise, rather than let the government of the day smash themselves on the rocks whilst keeping quiet.

Even worse though: while Gardiner, who in his unguarded comments was being critical of the idea, reveals the extend to which the Labour Party is lacking ideas on Brexit. His alternative proposal for the party policy was just to say ‘we’ll hold them to account on their claim to be leaving with exactly the same benefits’. That might have spared him some blushes inside his local party having to enunciate a party line he didn’t believe in, but it hardly helps the rest of us.

If the Labour Party doesn’t believe in Brexit it should collectively say so and become a conduit for the alternatives – like a vote on the terms of exit – or else admit they’re not up to the job.


Syria: does parliament get to decide?

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Whose decision is it whether the British military is sent to intervene in the Syrian civil war?

There is credible evidence that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has used more chemical weapons against the town of Douma. This has led to renewed calls from many British journalists and British politicians to take military action in Syria. This also brings back into the spotlight a question central to the exercise of democracy in the UK: is it the government or parliament who declare war?

The Syrian war is a terrible and evolving crisis. The many, many horrors brought about as a result of the conflict should be brought to an end. There should be concerted and careful action in order to end the suffering and bring peace. I am personally unconvinced that the arguments for bombing by the RAF are any stronger than they were the last time this was seriously debated in parliament.

The rehearsing of the arguments over Syrian is also bringing a purely British political question into focus. David Cameron’s failure to secure parliament’s backing  brought an effective end to the convention that the Prime Minister could declare war alone, using his or her prerogative powers. Just as Theresa May unstitched Cameron’s changes to the electoral timescale of the Fixed Term Parliament Act by calling a snap election, so she may be tempted to revert to the earlier practice of not seeking parliamentary approval for military action.

Were Mrs May to succeed in bypassing parliament – and thereby the views of the electorate – it would be a significant reversal. It would demonstrate that checks on executive power under the British constitutional system are not set in aspic once made. Or more importantly that the slow bleeding away of powers from the executive branch, which characterised the British constitutional system in the C20th, is under threat. It was largely a matter of democratic progress that government influence over parliament itself, as well as the military and judiciary, had been on the wane. For the sake of expediency, and out of a desire to avoid scrutiny of a decision to move to bombing raids, Mrs May might make a significant retrograde constitutional step.

It is also worth noting that were the Conservative government under May to succeed in side-stepping parliament and affirming executive control it would be doing so with a barely credible mandate. It would be deeply ironic, and hugely troubling, if Mrs May’s desire to avoid embarrassing and – for her government – fatal defeat led to the ultimate exercise of elective dictatorialness. It would also betray a complete lack of principle from the Prime Minister (though that hardly comes as a surprise). Whilst arguing that Brexit is being carried through in the name of parliamentary sovereignty, a unilateral decision to send British planes to Syria without the Commons’ consent would be to ride rough-shod over that same sovereign authority – the will of the people.

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Heading for the Brexit cliff edge?


The argument over the ‘Brexit bill’ is likely to go on for the “full duration of the negotiation”, said David Davis in the Commons today.

If this is true it means that the UK is heading for a ‘no-deal’ scenario, and crashing out of the EU. Michel Barnier has made clear, and has been backed to the hilt by every one of the 27 countries involved, that there are 3 ‘separation issues that must be sorted before the UK can strike a post-Brexit deal with the EU.

Those three issues are: the border between Ireland and the UK (the UK’s only land border with the EU); the issue of rights for citizens, and the exit bill to be paid by the UK.

I highlighted yesterday a very interesting article by Faisal Islam about the current state of negotiations. In it the Sky News political editor discussed the issue of a ‘transition deal’. It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’ll be impossible to tie up the whole shebang of Brexit before the deadline of March 2019. So an temporary fix might be agreed where we formally leave but basically stay till we can get the details fixed. A bit like getting kicked out by your spouse, but being allowed to kip on the sofa until you can find a flat to rent.

The problem is that the EU doesn’t want to agree a transitional deal until ‘Phase 1’ – the three issues above – are sorted. Yesterday Islam wrote this:

If we need a transition deal, then rather quickly we need to come to agreement on the ongoing Phase 1 of the negotiations. On current form this will not happen in time for the October EU summit. It might happen by December. “My hunch is it won’t happen till Christmas,” one informed Cabinet minister told me.

It would have been tight to negotiate absolutely everything necessary (a VAST amount) between Jan 2018 and March 2019 in order to leave, and that timeline only works if the bill gets agreed pronto.

If David Davis – as per his Commons statement – is now saying that the argument over a phase 1 issue is going to rumble on for the “full duration” of the negotiations, that is till 2019, then it’s really hard to see the UK getting any kind of deal even a transitional one. There might be hope from Davis that the EU might buckle – which they show no signs of doing – or take pity on the UK but that, I fear, is a vain hope.

Today, Davis also claimed to be making “concrete progress” in Brexit negotiations. As those in construction know, concrete is a very caustic substance which needs to be handled with care, and needs to be very precisely mixed, else it falls apart completely.

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The illusion of control

I’ve been banging on for a while about the way in which decision making power might be repatriated by Brexit, but influence will be lost in the process along with no small measure of political power.

There’s an excellent long article by Sky News’s political editor Faisal Islam published today.  I’ve clipped a short section which I think illustrates my point better than I could.

Fislam snip

(1) If Brexit really does happen, there will be a lot of choices which will be dressed up as having been made in London but that just-so-happen to be the carbon copies of ones made in the EU, thus allowing us to trade effectively. I.e. what a waste of everyone’s time.

(2) Take Back Control? No – more like just giving it away. And that’s not even taking into account that many big companies might well just leave rather than face regulatory uncertainties.

(3) Here’s the kicker: we get LESS influence post-Brexit over those regulations drawn up oversea (with our help btw, and some of which we quite like anyway). Dumb to the power of dumber.

Political decisions will be made in Britain post-Brexit. What won’t be decided on these shores is the long term direction of travel. Eurosceptics have long complained that our Westminster parliament was reduced to a mere rubber-stamp by membership of the EU. What an incredible irony that their own vigour and cunning in putting their case will unintentionally further reduce the power of those institutions they claim to hold so dear. They might still be able to choose the colour of the ink on the stamp perhaps.


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UK gov wants to cut-and-run on EU budget commitments


How very un-British! In the press conference that Brexit Secretary David Davis gave with Michel Barnier on 31st August he set out a very eye-opening aspect of the UK’s negotiating stance on Brexit.

In essence Davis stated that the EU was not prepared to honour pre-existing legal commitments to make budget contributions from the date Britain officially leaves the EU in 2019. In other words, things we promised to pay for in 2016, say, but wouldn’t need to actually be paid for until 2020, we would duck out of paying. This is a really bad, stupid position, as I’ve explained previously.

Head-in-the-sand Brexiteers might think this is a great wheeze – after all haven’t the EU had enough budget contributions off us over the years? Even if you believe we’ve been fleeced all these years (which I don’t) then it still a terrible proposition.

There isn’t another continent full of people we can trade with outside the EU who won’t know what untrustworthy and duplicitous our government is. If we stiff the EU, why would other trading blocs take a risk on us? And if they do, surely they’ll just price in the risk of doing business with a bunch of cowboys – it’s what we’d do.

There are three conclusions which can be drawn from this. Either (1) the Brexiteers like Davis genuinely don’t know what they’re doing, (2) it’s a badly misjudged bluff in order to force the EU negotiate [good luck with that], or more likely (3) they know that the EU can’t accept us not honouring existing commitments, the talks break down and the EU can safely be blamed which gets them off the hook because they’re just competent enough to know that the position they’ve got the UK into is abysmal.

Read in much more detail in this excellent thread from Steve Bullock @guitarmoog on Twitter.

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