Corbyn plan needs its day in Commons – so he can move on

by Hugo Dixon | 12.02.2019

With Theresa May not taking Jeremy Corbyn’s plan seriously, Labour’s Brexit spokesperson says MPs should vote on it. If they say “no”, as they are likely to, the party will be free to back a People’s Vote.

The prime minister initially seemed to humour the leader of the opposition’s plan, sending him a letter on Sunday night that didn’t reject outright one of the key demands – that we stay in a permanent customs union with the EU after Brexit. But following an outcry by hardline Brexiters in her party, her spokesperson said the government had been “absolutely clear” it was not considering the customs proposal.

Further talks between Corbyn and May seem pointless. Far better to follow Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, who suggested to the Belfast Telegraph that Labour’s proposal is put to a vote in the House of Commons.

This is not because Labour’s plan is a good one. True, it has the merit of damaging our economy less than the government’s. But the flipside is that we would end up following even more rules than the prime minister wants us to – and as with the government’s deal, we wouldn’t have a vote on those rules. We would lose, not take back control.

Ambiguous plan

There is also an ambiguity at the heart of Corbyn’s proposal. What exactly does he mean by “close alignment” with the single market? Does he want free movement of services as well as goods? If so, is he prepared to sign up for free movement of people – the quid pro quo that the EU will insist on?

Starmer suggested he was up for this when he told BBC’s Newsnight last week: “If somebody is coming to do a job and it needs to be done and it has been advertised locally beforehand with nobody able to do it, then most people would say I accept that.”

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That sounds very much like the “Swiss compromise”. When Switzerland tried to end free movement with the EU in 2016, the bloc said no. A compromise was agreed that allowed the country to advertise jobs locally before they were offered further afield. We might be able to get a similar deal – even if we stay in the EU.

Another question is whether Corbyn has dropped his unrealistic demand that we pull out of the EU’s state aid rules. His letter to the prime minister didn’t mention this – and Starmer in the Newsnight interview said he didn’t think these rules were a problem because they didn’t “cut across” Labour’s 2017 manifesto.

Yet another question is how Corbyn would hope to deliver his plan even if MPs and the EU approved it. It’s not as if he is prime minister.

The Labour leader’s idea is that his key demands should be “enshrined in law” as negotiating objectives before we leave the EU. The snag is that it will take many years before our trade deal with the bloc is finalised – and, in the meantime, there could be a general election and a new Tory prime minister who rips up this law. Remember that any new political declaration negotiated with the EU isn’t legally binding. It’s just a statement of intent.

Vote and move on

The advantage of a proper debate in the Commons on Labour’s plan is that all these and other issues can be probed. The proposals are unlikely to gain a majority, after the details are filled in. After all, Labour would need the support of all the other opposition parties and a chunk of Tories – and to stop its own pro-European MPs rebelling. That’s a tall order.

But that doesn’t mean such an exercise would be futile. Far from it. Labour’s conference in September mandated the leadership to explore all remaining alternatives including a public vote if it wasn’t able to force a general election.

Since it hasn’t been able to get an election, it now needs to do its damnedest to get its plan through Parliament. If it fails, Corbyn’s only option will be to support a People’s Vote. He will be reluctant to do so. But having tried everything else first, he will have a strong argument to present to the people – and to other Labour MPs who don’t want another referendum.

All he needs to do now is book that date in Parliament so his plan can have its day in the sun. If the prime minister refuses to give him that day, other MPs should rally to his cause and force her to.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

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