Last week was a particularly disastrous week for Parliament, when a horribly large majority of MPs voted to let Theresa May, the Prime Minister, do what she wants regarding Britain’s exit from the EU — and what she wants, as she has made clear, is as “hard” a Brexit as possible — one in which, in order to exercise some spurious control over immigration, we are forced to abandon the single market and the customs union, which will be insanely damaging to our economy.
The MPs’ unprovoked capitulation, by 494 votes to 122, in the vote allowing May to trigger Article 50, which launches our departure from the EU, came despite three-quarters of MPs believing that we should stay in the EU, and despite the narrow victory in last June’s referendum, which, crucially, was only advisory, although everyone in a position of power and authority has since treated it as though it was somehow legally binding.
The MPs’ capitulation was also disgraceful because, following the referendum, a handful of brave individuals engaged in a court battle to prevent Theresa May from behaving like a tyrant, and undertaking our departure from the EU without consulting Parliament. Both the High Court and the Supreme Court pointed out that sovereignty in the UK resides in Parliament, and not just in the hands of the Prime Minister, and that Parliament would have to be consulted.
Leave voters resented this intrusion of reality into their fantasy world, and the judges were subjected to widespread abuse for pointing out what Leave voters were supposed to have wanted all along (as they revealed that what they really want is a Tory dictator), but, shameful as this was, it was overshadowed by MPs’ craven refusal to accept their sovereignty, as they bowed down before Theresa May and gave her absolutely everything she wanted.
At the weekend, a handful of commentators expressed their dismay at this turn of events — although nowhere near enough, demonstrating the extent to which our mainstream media is plagued by a persistent right-wing bias. Two columns of note were in the Observer — ‘Parliament has diminished itself at this turning point in our history’ by Andrew Rawnsley, and ‘What use is sovereignty when MPs deny their conscience over Brexit?’ by William Keegan.
The only good news, however, came via a poll “conducted by ICM for the online campaigning organisation Avaaz on the day the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to trigger article 50,” as the Guardian described it, which revealed that “[a] clear majority of the British public oppose Theresa May’s uncompromising Brexit negotiating position and are not prepared for the UK to crash out of the EU if the prime minister cannot negotiate a reasonable exit deal.”
In a result described as “a sign that public support for the government’s push for a hard Brexit is increasingly precarious,” just 35% of those who responded to the polling “said they backed Britain leaving the EU without an agreement with other states.” If no agreement is reached, the UK would have to rely on World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs, and, as the Guardian explained, MPs and business leaders have said that this will “devastate the economy.”
In contrast, in what was described as “a welcome boost for soft Brexit campaigners,” over half of those surveyed (54%) “backed either extending negotiations if a satisfactory deal could not be reached, or halting the process altogether while the public was consulted for a second time.”
34% said Theresa May “should continue negotiating” if a satisfactory deal could not be reached, while an addition 20% “backed halting the process pending a second referendum on the terms of the deal.”
Those backing a second referendum include the Liberal Democrats and “a cross-party group of MPs including the Labour MPs David Lammy, Heidi Alexander and Ben Bradshaw, as well as the Green Party leader, Caroline Lucas.”
Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesman, said the poll findings “proved the government’s position was indefensible.” He said, “Our best hope of stopping a ruinous hard Brexit that nobody voted for and few want is if the public rally round to fight it, as Brexit grows more unpopular. That means uniting many who voted leave but now want to avoid the economic catastrophe of quitting the single market, and who want to protect those European citizens who contribute so much to Britain’s economy and society.”
Bert Wander, Avaaz’s campaign director, said the results “showed May was at odds with the public over Brexit, and called for the House of Lords to ensure that Britons had the right to force May to continue negotiating.” As he pointed out, “Two-thirds of the public don’t want Theresa May dangling us over the Brexit cliff without a safety net and the Lords can intervene and save us from that fate. We need the right to send May back to Brussels if all she brings us is a bad deal for Britain.”
Yesterday, there was further cause for hope when Dick Newby, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, said that he was “confident that enough peers would back amendments on issues such as the rights of EU citizens [to stay in the UK] and parliamentary votes on the final Brexit deal to defeat the government and force a rethink.”
This is good news, because, last week, when MPs voted overwhelmingly for Theresa May to trigger Brexit, they failed to secure a single amendment, leaving EU citizens in the UK facing a disgracefully uncertain future as “bargaining chips.” Their inability to secure any amendments also mean that their entire involvement in the Brexit negotiations is dependent upon the whims of the Prime Minister, who, as is becoming increasingly obvious, has no interest whatsoever in MPs’ involvement.
Newby said that he “expected around 230 Labour and Lib Dem peers to back an amendment on EU citizens, as well as most of the crossbenchers and at least two Tory peers,” and he added that, because some Tory peers are expected to abstain, the numbers should be sufficient to “easily defeat the government.”
He added, “There are a lot of members of the group for whom Europe is the big thing that has motivated them in politics,” and also admitted, “We were complacent, truth be told. But things have turned and people on our side feel very strongly about it.” He also said all peers “had been told to cancel leave or prior engagements.”
Labour peers have tabled “eight amendments on issues from EU nationals to quarterly reporting to parliament about the Brexit process” (similar to the thwarted amendments in the House of Commons), but with some important additions — former cabinet minister Peter Hain, for example, “has tabled several amendments, including one on the Northern Irish border, which Newby said was gaining traction,” as it deserves to, and another backed by crossbench peer Lord Pannick QC, who opposed the government in the Supreme Court over the need for parliamentary approval of the triggering of article 50. Pannick’s amendment “would require a parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal, specifying that it should take place before any deal is approved by the European commission or parliament.”
Labour peers have, apparently, promised not to try to derail Theresa May’s plan to trigger Article 50 by the end of March, but Newby said that Labour peers “may be prepared to be more openly pro-European than Labour MPs because they did not have to answer to constituencies.”
As he explained, “What’s the point? If you’re 65 and a Labour peer and been pro-European all your life, why just sit on your hands? A lot of them are taking it into their own hands, because I talk to a lot of them.”
He also said of the Labour peers in general, “What have they got to lose? There are very many strong Europeans in the Labour party. They all know Corbyn is taking the Labour party down a destructive path, they are all beside themselves.”
Newby also addressed the threat by an unnamed government source, who said, “If the Lords don’t want to face an overwhelming public call to be abolished they must get on and protect democracy and pass this bill.” He called it an empty threat, and explained, “There is zero capacity in Whitehall to worry about House of Lords reform, it’s ludicrous to even contemplate it.”
As the Lords continue to discuss Brexit, the only other news of note since last week’s vote is a report by a new thinktank, Global Future, which suggests, damningly, that Brexit’s major aim — to return control of our borders — will not work, and will only lead to a “vanishingly small reduction” in the numbers of immigrants. I have been staying this all along — and, of course, what is also overlooked by pro-leave evangelists is the extent to which immigrants are vital to the UK economy and their contribution is irreplaceable.
Global Future’s report “shows total net immigration, which at the latest official estimate was 335,000 in the year to June 2016, could be expected to fall by no more than 15%, to 285,000 a year,” as the Guardian described it, adding, that future free trade deals with non-EU countries suggest that “even this reduction could be wiped out.”
This was acknowledged last week by Liam Fox, the international trade minister, who accepted that “he did not know of any new free trade deal that did not also include liberalisation of migration rules between the two countries signing such agreements.” As the Guardian noted, “Australia and India have already indicated they will seek preferential access for their workers as part of a free trade deal,” despite Theresa May’s evident racism on a recent trip to India, when she made it clear how much she dislikes allowing any immigrants into the UK, unless, of course, they are wealthy.
The Global Future report concludes that, “While ending freedom of movement is psychologically appealing to those who want a sense of control of our borders, the reality is such a move would create more the illusion of control. People looking for substantial reductions are likely to be disappointed with the eventual figure of 50,000 or less.”
Its director, Gurnek Bains, added, “The extent to which this impact is worth the myriad of economic and political problems that pulling out of free movement would create needs to be reflected upon. In addition, promising more than can be delivered on migration risks creating a firestorm in the future.”
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, who backed the findings of the report, said, “In return for this self-inflicted wound it is unlikely that the Conservative Brexit government will be able to deliver its promise of dramatically reduced immigration.”
My hope is that all of these blows to the government’s “hard Brexit” plans are inching us closer to where we need to end up — staying in the EU because leaving and engaging in the single biggest act of economic suicide in our lifetimes is too great price to pay — but I’m not holding my breath. This is going to be a long struggle, because those of us who want to stay in the EU are up against spectacularly delusional nationalists, whose self-regard is so colossal that they are unable to comprehend how deluded they are.
Note: For further information about Brexit, please read Ian Dunt’s excellent article for Politics.co.uk, ‘Everything you need to know about Theresa May’s Article 50 nightmare in five minutes.’ Dunt is the author of the invaluable book, Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?