Brexit is often portrayed as just another episode in the long-running and seemingly endless Tory soap opera about Europe – who’s up, who’s down, and who is stabbing whom in the back this week. But the reality is that the outcome of these negotiations will define the future trajectory of our country. From jobs to the value of the pound in your pocket, national security, immigration, food safety and supply, public services funding, employment rights and environmental standards, these talks will shape almost every area of daily life for generations to come.
So we are well within our rights to ask if the people conducting these vital negotiations are up to the job.
Anyone who has taken part in complex, high-stakes negotiations will tell you that to have any chance of a satisfactory outcome, you have to get four basic principles right.
First, you have to know what you’re working toward. If you are lacking a clear and realistic idea of your goal, then you may as well not bother.
Second, you and your team must present a united front. From your overall definition of outcomes to the finest detail of the final terms, there has to be absolute consistency, coherence and clarity.
Third, your team (and particularly your team leader) must possess a sense of authority, as the slightest wobble will be ruthlessly exploited by the other side.
Fourth, you need to invest time and effort in building trust, a constructive relationship, and a reserve of goodwill; it’s very rare that antagonism delivers positive outcomes.
With just 12 months to go until parliament is to be given a meaningful vote on the terms of the deal, it has become clear that – judged against these four principles – Theresa May’s government is fundamentally incapable of negotiating a deal that will protect jobs, livelihoods and our national interest.
Where there should be purpose and clarity there is muddle and fudge – positions change constantly because the goal has never been properly defined.
Where there should be a united front, there is chaos. The referendum took place 16 months ago, and yet the cabinet is still spending more time negotiating with itself than with the EU. The prime minister’s Florence speech was billed as a turning point in the negotiations – but her own foreign secretary, in an act of breathtaking treachery, published a 4,000-word article in a national newspaper that stole her thunder, undermined her credibility and laid bare the divisions in her cabinet.
Exhibit B is her chancellor, who tells the Treasury select committee that no money whatsoever is being set aside to help prepare for us crashing out of the EU without a deal – approximately an hour before she had to use prime minister’s questions to promise precisely the opposite.
Where there should be leadership, there is a vacuum. The negotiations are nominally being led by the prime minister, but her authority is shot to pieces. Utterly discredited by the result of the general election that she called and fought in a heightened state of hubris, she is undermined on a daily basis by the fact that Brexit has morphed into a proxy war for the leadership of the Conservative party.
And where there should be a platform for constructive dialogue, there is bitter animosity. Ever since Margaret Thatcher, the prevailing attitude of Tory politicians towards Europe has been characterised by a toxic combination of paranoia, insecurity and nostalgia for empire. The post-1979 Conservative approach to Europe – exemplified by acts of self-harm such as David Cameron’s 2009 decision to remove his party from the umbrella group of centre-right parties in the European parliament, Theresa May standing on the steps of Downing Street and making the Putinesque claim that malignant forces in Brussels were seeking to interfere in the British election, and Philip Hammond calling the EU “the enemy” – really has provided an object lesson in how to lose friends and alienate people.
Directionless. Divided. Weak. Disliked. Distrusted. The farcical nature of the position in which the government finds itself could almost be funny, were it not so serious. Millions of jobs depend on this government’s ability to secure a transition deal; thousands of businesses are in limbo; airlines are not sure their planes will be able to take off post-Brexit; EU citizens living here and British citizens living in the EU have no idea what their status or rights will be; the Northern Ireland peace process is in jeopardy; and customs officials and operators in Dover and other ports fear gridlock.
The fact is that the government is engaged in the most important, high-stakes negotiation in our postwar history, and it is simply not up to the task.
In the meantime, the Labour party has emerged as the only realistic hope the country has of getting the Brexit negotiations back on track.
Do we have a vision? Yes. We are committed to respecting the result of the referendum, and we are committed to securing a transition deal. We know that “no deal is better than a bad deal” is a dangerous and vacuous slogan. Dangerous, because the economic consequences of crashing out of the EU without a deal would be catastrophic; and vacuous because the prime minister let the cat out of the bag when she used her Florence speech to acknowledge that we need a transition deal.
Can we present a united front? Absolutely. The shadow cabinet, the parliamentary Labour party and the membership are overwhelmingly in favour of securing a transition deal, and are realistic about the fact that compromise and creativity will be required in the negotiations.
Do we have a leader and a team around him who have the authority and credibility that are preconditions for success? Yes, without a shadow of doubt. Jeremy Corbyn has won two leadership elections and has shifted the political centre of gravity, while Keir Starmer possesses the gravitas and forensic skills that make him the ideal chief negotiator. There can be no doubt that Michel Barnier sees David Davis as a lightweight, and that he is deeply irritated by all that swagger and bravado – just look at the body language at those press conferences. It is equally certain that this would not be his view if he were dealing with Starmer.
And what about the deeper reserves of goodwill and trust that are so important to any negotiation? Well, Labour’s relationship with the EU has not always been characterised by sweetness and light, but it has always been constructive and rational. We can and will be tough negotiators, without breeding ill-will. We are a fundamentally internationalist party, and we have none of the antagonistic, Europhobic baggage that the Conservative party carries.
The stark contrast between the incompetence of the Conservative party and the strength of our position, combined with the fact that the stakes for our country simply could not be higher, lead inevitably to the conclusion that Labour is duty-bound to table a motion of no confidence, which could read as follows:
That this House has no confidence in the ability of Her Majesty’s government to negotiate the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU in such a way as to protect and promote the jobs, livelihoods and long-term interests of the British people.
The motion should be tabled, debated and voted upon as soon as possible. Time is running out. With every day that passes the government stumbles closer to the disastrous no-deal scenario.
Some may suggest that we should leave the Conservatives to it, so they will “own” the failure, something that would work to Labour’s future electoral advantage. But that is not the Labour way. We take responsibility, even in the face of daunting challenges, when our country needs us.
Similarly, some may say that triggering another election will cause further uncertainty. That may be true, but this divided, shambolic, directionless government is leading the country towards disaster. We must therefore ask ourselves whether that is really something Her Majesty’s loyal opposition can let happen, in all good conscience?
Others may suggest that a no-confidence motion will end up unifying the other side. Well, the answer to that is simply that the government is making such a hideous mess of this supremely important task, that parliament must be given the opportunity to decide whether it should be allowed to continue.
The government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations is heading for the rocks. It is Labour’s patriotic duty to demonstrate that we are ready, willing and able to take the helm, and steer our country into safer waters.