Richard Leonard: There needs to be a new approach on Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal was voted down. Picture: PA
Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal was voted down. Picture: PA
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Theresa May’s Brexit deal is dead, rejected by MPs on an unprecedented scale. We will find out tomorrow if the Prime Minister has finally accepted this when she presents what has been billed as her Plan B to the House of Commons.

But the reality is that there needs to be a new approach. We have been saying this for months and months. Instead of the Tories’ race-to-the-bottom deal that would be bad for Scotland and for the UK as a whole, we need a deal that protects jobs and workers’ rights, includes a customs union and, importantly, prevents a hard border in Ireland that safeguards the Good Friday Agreement.

Our proposals could be the basis for re-uniting the country and form the building blocks of a sensible alternative. I believe it is only Labour that can put forward proposals that will win majority support among MPs, as well as the public, trade unions and businesses, break the deadlock and prevent us catastrophically crashing out of Europe at the end of March without a deal. No Deal is not an option and Jeremy Corbyn is right to demand that No Deal be taken off the table as a prerequisite of any talks with the Prime Minister.

But if the need for a sensible plan like the one that we have outlined – and which Jeremy Corbyn offered support for in September – has been pressing for some time, it is now critical. Theresa May is trying to run down the clock even further, apparently intent on trying to frighten MPs into voting for her deal.

It is hard to sum up just how badly the Tories have handled the Brexit talks. Before I was elected to the Scottish Parliament, I spent two decades as a trade union negotiator, so I know about a thing or two about negotiating and I know there is always a way to break an impasse, but it requires hard, patient work.

Labour’s position, agreed unanimously at our UK annual conference, is that our priority is for a General Election. If we cannot get this, other options remain on the table, this includes seeking parliamentary solutions as well as the option of campaigning for a public vote.

The reason for prioritising an election is that we need a new Government in Westminster not just to clear up the mess the Tories have made over Brexit, but to repair the damage they have done to our economy, our communities and our public services.

Ahead of the no confidence vote, Theresa May reportedly told her MPs they needed to back her to keep Jeremy Corbyn “as far away from Number 10 as possible”. The Tories know the threat that Labour poses to them and the failed politics they represent.

I believe there will be opportunities to break the deadlock and gain a parliamentary majority for Labour’s plans through amendments to whatever Theresa May presents to the Commons tomorrow. None of these routes will be straightforward, and it is now inevitable, given the state the Prime Minister’s intransigence and incompetence has got us into, that the Government will have to seek an extension to the Article 50 process for talks with the European Union.

This is a fast changing and complex situation, and it is right that we take things step by step. Any politician that tells you there are simple choices and easy ways out is not being honest. I am afraid that the peddling of simple solutions does not stand up to scrutiny and that is true north and south of the border.

It is perhaps an uncomfortable fact for some that one million people in Scotland voted to leave the EU, but it is a fact nonetheless. And if you live in Fraserburgh and voted Leave, having politicians in Edinburgh telling you that actually you voted Remain will seem odd.

I was one of the 1.6 million of us who voted Remain. But leadership means listening to others, often people with whom you disagree, and understanding and appreciating what motivates them.

While it is impossible to respect the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit, it is important to respect how people voted in the referendum, and important to recognise where the real divides in society lie.

They are not between people in Dundee who voted Remain and those in Doncaster who voted Leave, or between working class families in Scotland and working class families in the rest of the UK. These are false divisions, propagated by those whose purpose is only to divide communities and wield power for its own sake.

Labour stands for something different. We don’t want to divide people, we want to bring people together because the old adage is still true, that unity is strength. It is why this week I spoke in Holyrood about how our economy can no longer just be left to the market, how we need a more radical approach, to extend democracy in our workplaces and in our communities, to bring about real change and to give people hope.

We have to find a way forward that brings all our communities in Scotland and the UK together, however they voted in the EU referendum and whatever their views now. If we don’t we risk instability and chaos for years to come.