Labour needs to dump Keir Starmer’s negotiating strategy advocating surrender to the EU

Labour needs to dump Keir Starmer’s negotiating strategy advocating surrender to the EU

Hell hath no fury like an elite scorned. So it is with the House of Lords: the arch representative of the elite, unelected and unaccountable; the self-appointed custodian of the nation defying the people’s vote to Leave the EU, passing no fewer than 15 amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, most overtly aimed at obstructing Brexit. But they failed as the elected House rejected virtually all of them – a testament to the strength of our democratic traditions.

There was drama and farce in the Commons, the latter provided by the SNP walk-out in the hope that that will endear themselves to an increasingly sceptical Scottish electorate. The action was exposed as a stunt when they boasted that their action led to thousands of new recruits to the party – which is what the whole issue was about, not to serve Scotland and its people but to serve the SNP. If it is repeated, as the SNP threatened, it will surely alienate those in Scotland, who will see the SNP as only interested in breaking up the UK rather than tending to their needs and welfare.

The drama came through the House of Lords’ amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill (all but one of which were reversed in the Commons and today the Government is calling on peers to accept the will of the elected House). The most shameless amendments passed by the Lords were those attempting to keep the UK in the single market and a customs union, thus making a mockery of leaving the EU. Others sought to tie the Government’s hands in its negotiations with the EU to pave the way for the worst possible deal – something, they hope, would force us to crawl back and ask the EU for forgiveness. How little they think of their compatriots and how little they know them.

The last minute haggle between the Government and Dominic Grieve on the so-called ‘meaningful vote’ provided the media with a lot of excitement. The Grieve amendment attempted to sketch out a series of steps that would be taken if the Commons were to vote down the deal the Government comes back with at the end of the negotiations with the EU. It proposed a vote on the Brexit deal within seven days of it being signed. Then, in the event of there being no deal by 30th November, the Government would have to tell Parliament what it intended to do and they could vote on it. Then, if there was still no deal by 15th February – just six weeks before Brexit Day – Parliament would take over and direct the Government.

Grieve has claimed that his amendment deals with the process, not the outcome, of negotiations – when he knows perfectly well that the process invariably affects and sometimes determines it. His amendment implores the EU to reach no deal or a very bad deal in order to allow Parliament to replace the current negotiating objectives with ones  that would keep the UK ensnared to the single market and customs union, in direct contradiction to the referendum vote. If the Lords today pass this amendment (re-tabled by Lord Hailsham and Baroness Altmann) and send it back to the Commons, as they threaten to do, they would be going beyond their function as a revising chamber because their original revision has been thrown out by the Commons. Labour must not be seen to encourage such reckless behaviour and withdraw its support for the amendment.

As subversive as this is, I also happen to believe it to be purely academic, since it would falter at the very first step when the Government asks for parliamentary approval to the outcome of the negotiations: a government that fails to get Parliament’s support on this most important issue could not continue to govern. The Prime Minister would either have to resign or go to the country; and no doubt Theresa May would choose the latter option. The fixed term Parliament presents no insurmountable obstacle: a motion to call a general election would get the required two thirds majority since the opposition would have no choice but to support it.

Then Theresa May could do what she failed to do in her earlier snap election: paint herself as the only person who can deliver Brexit and indeed the only person who had delivered Brexit, only to be frustrated by the other parties. The electorate would give her the majority she yearns for and the Tories’ efforts would be made easier by their secret weapon, Keir Starmer, who advocates surrender as a negotiating strategy with the EU. Every time Starmer says ‘no deal is not an option’, Labour loses a few thousand votes.

Labour must begin to muzzle Starmer and gradually abandon the ‘five tests’ that he devised to determine if a final deal is acceptable, the first of which – ‘exact same benefits’ as membership of the EU – boxes Labour into opposing any deal, regardless of its merits, for the simple reason that ‘exact same benefits’ can never be realised. The people will not see Labour as a serious future government with such a flippant attitude to the future of the nation.

For me, the most crucial amendment up for discussion during the course of the Withdrawal Bill – and the one that had Remainers salivating – called for the UK to join the European Economic Area once we leave the EU; what is known as the Norway option in which we would continue to abide by the rules of the Single Market, including the freedom of movement of capital and labour. For Labour, this would have meant abandoning any hope of a Corbyn government ever being able to implement its comprehensive programme of public ownership and control of the railways and other major utilities, state aid for British industry and borrowing to invest.

There was no end to the pressure on the Labour leader to give way and The Guardian in particular weighed in very heavily, day after day. But Corbyn and the leadership were steadfast, reflecting the steadfastness of the public, the majority of whom want the Government to get on with it. If Labour had voted for membership of the EEA, it would have been reneging on its election manifesto and defying the Brexit vote.