Some Tories are floating the idea that Britain might leave Brexit talks with no deal in the end. That’s not good enough says Keiran Pedley. Labour must make clear that if it looks like the government cannot deliver a Brexit deal, then they will call a vote of no confidence.
As Westminster goes ‘back to school’ it is safe to say that Brexit talks are not going particularly well. A war of words has broken out between chief Brexit negotiator David Davis and his Brussels counterpart Michel Barnier. Barnier has claimed that ‘no decisive progress’ has been made in talks whilst team Davis has expressed exasperation at the apparent inflexibility of the EU. The sticking points appear to be the size of the Brexit divorce bill and at what point negotiations will start over a future trading relationship between the two sides. Such rhetoric may well be the ‘tit for tat’ that you would expect from these talks but the clock, as they say, is ticking.
Of most concern are the growing noises coming from the government and leading Brexit commentators that we might end up with no deal at all. At this stage, it is hard to say whether or not such noises are just bluster. If not, then these are worrying developments. It is quite the departure from the Brexit we were promised if a ‘great deal that is in Europe’s interests too’ gives way to no deal at all and the resulting negative consequences for Northern Ireland and the British economy. What ‘no deal’ would mean for Northern Ireland is anybody’s guess and the business community has been quite vocal about the economic shock that awaits if Britain faces a disorderly Brexit.
If Britain does walk away with no deal I expect voters to punish those in charge. It is often assumed that Theresa May would carry the court of public opinion should Brexit talks produce no deal. The idea being that the British public would side with their government versus the stubborn and unreasonable Europeans. Whilst I have no doubt that this would be true for some, I wouldn’t bet on it for the majority. Not anymore. Even if we assume that talk of economic shock is exaggerated, which I think is dubious, we should remember that Theresa May’s reputation has taken a battering since June. Policy is often seen through the prism of those enacting it and I suspect that whereas walking away would have been seen as a sign of strength 6 months ago, it would now be seen as the dictionary definition of incompetence – Black Wednesday on steroids.
The other major problem that the government faces now is that it is no longer the only show in town. Following the General Election in June, the government is extremely weak and the prospect of a Labour government extremely real. Labour has recently set out its own position on Britain’s membership of the single market during an extended transition period. Whilst this position may only be a slightly more deliverable version of the government’s for now, as Jonathon Portes points out on this week’s Polling Matters podcast, it could easily evolve further still. Regardless, Labour now occupies a new political reality where it can exert pressure on the government’s Brexit policy in a way that it could not before. Times have changed.
This new political reality presents Labour with a golden opportunity that it dare not squander. Labour should be saying loud and clear that a good deal is possible – indeed it was promised by the Leave campaign – and if no deal is delivered then that would represent a profound failure in political leadership on the part of Theresa May and her government. A failure so deep and damaging to the country that it would warrant a vote of no confidence in the government. Put another way, if the Tories cannot do a deal with Europe, then Labour should be given the chance to do so.
Of course, some will argue ‘Why shouldn’t we walk away? Why should we just take any deal that is offered?’ I’m afraid this misses the point. A good deal with the E.U. should be deliverable and it was promised. In fact, you could argue that if it isn’t possible, if we are seriously suggesting that the only way Britain can leave the EU is to do so without a deal, then it would be justifiable to revisit the whole issue of leaving at all. Would the public, for example, have voted to leave if they had known it would mean the hardest of Brexits and all the economic and political damage that would cause the country?
No deal? No confidence
I wouldn’t go this far personally as I think we all know that a deal is there to be done. From my perspective, such a deal might involve a longer transition period than currently anticipated and membership of the EEA (similar to what Stephen Kinnock outlines here). Others will disagree. However, my point today is not what the deal should be but to make clear that a deal is possible. Therefore, if no deal is achieved then this will be a serious failure on the part of the government. Likely driven more by Tory division and a weak Prime Minister unable to face down her own party when compromise with Europe is needed than anything else. Labour should be saying this loud and clear.
Of course, we still have a long way to go in Brexit talks. It is entirely possible that the government delivers a great deal for Britain in the end. I hope that they do. We are all counting on them. However, for now, I think that Labour should make clear that ‘no deal’ is unacceptable and nip this idea in the bud that it is a viable option. Making this a confidence issue would be a good way for Labour to exert its new found influence. They could even set a time limit for acceptable progress on talks so as not to act too late. After all, if crashing out of the E.U. with no alternative arrangement in place, having told us it would be easy, does not warrant a vote of no-confidence in the government then I don’t know what does.
Keiran Pedley is the presenter of the PB / Polling Matters podcast and tweets about politics and public opinion at @keiranpedley. Listen to the latest Polling Matters podcast with Jonathan Portes below.