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Labour hasn’t fallen into Tory trap with Commons motion

by Hugo Dixon | 08.12.2016

Brexiters such as Iain Duncan Smith are crowing that Labour has written a “blank cheque” by agreeing to the government amendment on its motion calling on Theresa May to produce her Brexit plan. The Liberal Democrats and Greens fear that the main opposition has fallen into a Tory trap.

Neither the spin of the hard Brexit brigade nor the concerns of those who still want to fight Brexit are valid. Labour’s motion calling for a plan wasn’t precise enough and agreeing to the amendment telling May to trigger Article 50 by end March carries risks. But the parliamentary manoeuvre was still a step in the right direction because the prime minister is now committed to publish a plan.

Those who say that Labour has sold the pass by agreeing to her March date for starting formal divorce talks with the EU are ignoring the fact that the party had already made clear it would not stand in the way of triggering Article 50. That may have been a mistake. But it wasn’t making any significant new concession.

What’s more, this concession does not have legal force. If the supreme court backs the high court’s view that parliament’s approval is needed to invoke Article 50, a Commons motion won’t be enough. An act of parliament – going through the Lords and the Commons – is the only way to change our laws.

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Critics of Labour also point out that May hasn’t yet said what sort of plan she will produce or when she will do so. The failure to nail down these points was certainly a weakness in the party’s motion. It would have been better to call for the government to publish a Green Paper two months before she triggers Article 50. This is what #WhatsThePlan, a coalition of civil society groups including InFacts, are demanding.

That said, it would not be within the spirit of the Commons motion for May to produce a derisory plan that could fit on the back of a fag packet or to publish it so late that parliament and the people can’t debate it properly. The expectation now in parliament is that the government will produce a substantial document no later than end January.

If the prime minister gets up to any monkey business, she will anger MPs. They will then have every right to stop her moving ahead with her Brexit timetable.

You can sign the #WhatsThePlan petition here

Edited by Stewart Fleming