Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn, who recently met with Prime Minister Theresa May over the Japanese car company's future in Britain following the Brexit vote.David Parry/PA Images. All rights reserved.Tony Blair is right! Yes, even I have difficulty in believing that I could have written those words. For decades I have had profound disagreements with Blair and his policies when leader of the Labour Party. Indeed I believe that Blairite doctrines and a record of disastrous wars injected near fatal toxin into the bloodstream of the labour movement.
But the fact remains that when Blair states that the EU referendum outcome does not end the debate about British membership of the EU – he is correct.
He is also right when he points out that the narrow Leave majority cannot be taken as endorsement of the eventual terms the British government negotiate for leaving the EU and certainly not for the precise relationship Britain – outside the EU – would have to accept with its closest neighbours and economic and political partners. As matters stand, no one outside Theresa May’s cabinet has the foggiest idea of what … the government is minded to accept.
As matters stand, no one outside Theresa May’s cabinet has the foggiest idea of what kind of terms of secession from the EU the government is minded to accept. And none at all about the nature of Brexit – so-called ‘soft’, hard or total exclusion.
Different Tory ministers hint at different outcomes. The international trade minister, Liam Fox, drops large hints that the UK must not only leave the EU Single Market but also the Customs Union. Number 10 Downing Street declines to endorse this as official policy. Other Conservatives insist on either full membership of the Single Market – no matter what EU laws and budget contributions must be accepted – or such substantial access to the market as to amount to almost the same thing.
In the meantime the government is promising an (as yet secret) deal with big motor manufacturers such as Nissan to offset any disadvantage they will suffer from Brexit. No doubt just about every other major export company is even now preparing their demands for the same treatment.
In the meantime the government dogmatically refuses to give Parliament any right to question the decision to trigger the famous Article 50 procedure to begin UK withdrawal negotiations which Mrs May promises will be activated before the end of March next year. This is the moment when the two year clock will begin to count down on those negotiations.
The negotiations with the EU and its now 27 other Member States will strictly be about the terms of the divorce settlement. They will not involve any formal agreement on the UK’s exact relationship with the EU in the years to come. However ministers can expect informal talks on the future in parallel with the Article 50 negotiations.
That means the government will have a pretty good idea of what the future relationship might be when they have concluded the talks on the exit process. Should this not be the case and the two year time limit expires without a deal, the UK would find itself outside with no agreement at all.
Since the British government will want to avoid this at all costs, it will have to report back on what progress it has made to Parliament well before the expiry of the Article 50 timetable – presumably end of March 2019. When it does so it will also have to report on what “understandings” – if any – it has reached about the future.
MPs will have every right to demand a vote on whether to approve or to reject these terms. The only alternatives open to the government would be either to call a general election to validate the terms of exit or to hold a second referendum to do the same. These options will all relate to matters which were in no way the subject of the referendum last June.
There is already evidence of some “voter regret” among Leave supporters, particularly in Wales. As well as the Labour Party whose leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has spelled out his total opposition to anything like a “hard Brexit”, the SNP, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and a significant number of Tory MPs have also expressed alarm at the course being taken by the May government. Jeremy Corbyn has already struck up a good relationship with other EU socialist and social democratic parties.
A defeat for the government in any of these three scenarios would leave little option for the government than to withdraw its Article 50 submission. Legal experts have made it clear that the government has the right to do this unilaterally within the 2 year time limit.
There is every reason for Labour to lead the way on this. Jeremy Corbyn has already struck up a good relationship with other EU socialist and social democratic parties. They want Britain’s continued membership of the EU not least to change many of the disastrous economic austerity policies which overwhelmingly rightist EU governments have imposed in recent years. They also want British Labour to further strengthen European rights of workers, the equality women, of ethnic and other minorities and to drive progress on environmentally sustainable growth and employment.