Richard Leonard: Brexit chaos has only one solution

Can anyone really predict political events with any great certainty anymore? If anyone claims to be able to, they should probably be treated with extreme caution, and a large dose of scepticism, writes Richard Leonard.

On just one day of this last week alone – in fact, within the space of just one hour – Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ Government lost three key votes in the House of Commons, including one that found it to be the first Government in history to be in contempt of Parliament, after it refused to publish the full legal advice on the Brexit deal. What a badge of shame. It is one which under normal conditions might be expected to mean the end of the Prime Minister and her Government.

The Tories had sought to keep this advice secret. And we now know why. As Neil Findlay exposed in the Brexit debate in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday, the proposed withdrawal agreement with the European Union treats Britain as a “third country” for goods entering Northern Ireland, something that David Mundell and Ruth Davidson had expressly said they could not support.

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Less than two months ago, this newspaper reported that the two leading Scottish Tories had written to the Prime Minister to say: “We could not support any deal that creates a border of any kind in the Irish Sea and undermines the union or leads to Northern Ireland having a different relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK, beyond what currently exists.”

A Government in waiting? The Labour benches listen as Theresa May addresses the Commons (Picture: AFP/Getty)
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There was talk of resignations if this red line was crossed. All talk, it seems. This red line must have been written in the same invisible ink that the Scottish Secretary used to draw his red line under the fishing industry.

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David Mundell urges Nicola Sturgeon to listen to business on Brexit deal
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But let’s be clear what this historic contempt of Parliament vote really means. This isn’t about some archaic institution, or the finer detail of constitutional law. This is about how this Tory Government treats us, the voters, and how it thinks it can get away with it.

The Prime Minister has been lauded by sections of the media and political pundits for her steely resolve in the face of adversity. But I don’t see anything of the kind. In reality, she has shunned scrutiny at every turn. We saw the same thing during last year’s general election, when she refused to turn up to the leaders’ debate on TV, and when she ludicrously declared that nothing had changed as her manifesto lay shredded on the floor before the ink had even had time to dry.

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It’s the same now, as she’s once again running away from a head-to-head TV debate with Jeremy Corbyn. And the same thing again on her visit to Scotland last week, billed as an important stop on a tour of all the nations of the UK to sell her deal but in truth, a lightning visit lasting a grand total of three hours.

Her refusal to meet and talk to people and hear their concerns and answer their questions, at a time when the political stakes are so high, drove home for me how little faith she has in the Brexit agreement she has cobbled together.

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So let’s remind ourselves how much of a catastrophic failure this deal is and how far short it falls from the tests Labour set and our alternative plan. In ruling out a permanent customs union with a British say in future deals, May’s deal will not protect jobs or support businesses and industries, and the manufacturing supply chains they depend on. It puts workers’ rights and environmental standards at risk, opening the door to a future Tory government to undermine them further.

It provides no certainty about our future relationship with the EU and it fails to deliver the close relationship Labour has called for. And crucially for the integrity of the UK, it offers no long-term credible solution to the issue of the border between the north and south of Ireland.

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This is such a failure after two years of negotiations. So it should come as no surprise that Labour cannot support it in its current form and we will vote against it next Tuesday.

As we demonstrated in Holyrood this week, that does not mean we accept the choice is between May’s deal or no deal at all. If it is voted down, we will work to ensure there is no prospect of crashing out of Europe with no deal. But there is another lesson from the current political crisis. This chaotic situation should not be used as a pretext to separate us from the rest of the UK. In fact, it shows how difficult it is to leave a longstanding political and economic union. The last thing we need is more chaos and instability.

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The SNP’s comparison of Scotland with Northern Ireland is reckless and disingenuous, given the political history of Northern Ireland and the significance of the Good Friday Agreement. I honestly can’t predict how this will play out in the days and weeks ahead, let alone the next few months. No one can. But in a sense, that’s not the point. For me, it’s not about predicting what will happen, but about ensuring Labour and our wider movement shape what does happen.

It is obvious to everyone that Theresa May has lost all authority and that her Government exists in name only. It therefore follows that we need a new Government. One that can negotiate a good deal that does protect jobs and industries, and does work for Scotland and all the regions and nations of the UK.

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We need Labour governments in power in Scotland and the UK, with the vision to look beyond Brexit and nationalism to bring real change to resolve the crises in our NHS, in housing and schools, and to halt the devastating rise in homelessness, poverty and inequality. It is Labour that will transform our society and our economy so they work for the many, not the few.