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We Cannot Continue to Kick the Can Down the Road: The People Deserve a Final Say on Brexit

The time for brinkmanship and running down the clock is over writes Dr Louise Irvine, Secretary to the National Health Action Party, in her argument for a People’s Vote

The Prime Minister’s decision to delay putting her Withdrawal Agreement to another meaningful vote - pushing the date back to the 12th of March and therefore only 17 days away from exit day - is strategically nonsensical. The Prime Minister’s strategy is clear for all to see; it is a game of chicken. The problem with this strategy is that it wont work. The government has already suffered the largest ever defeat of a sitting government when the House of Commons voted to reject the Prime Minister’s now dead in the water Withdrawal Agreement by 230 votes. Taking us to a cliff-edge wont discipline MPs from across parliament into changing position and voting for her deal.

There is no majority in Parliament, let alone within the Prime Ministers own party, for a kamikaze no deal Brexit. Perversely, the Prime Minister’s current strategy simply offers the hardliners in the European Research Group (ERG) the incentive to continue voting down whatever Withdrawal Agreement is put before them. A hard-Brexit has always been the holy grail for which the ERG longs.

Even if we set aside the fact that the parliamentary arithmetic doesn’t stack up in the Prime Minister’s favour.  There is also the other glaring flaw in the Prime Minister’s plan which is that the UK has far more to lose from a no-deal Brexit than the EU, and that the EU knows this. Only last week, National Voices - a coalition of health and social care charities operating across the UK – sent a jointly signed letter to the Prime Minister warning that a no deal Brexit would immediately disrupt the supply of medicines and medical devices to the UK. That UK participation in pan-European research, public health initiatives and innovations would be seriously hampered and that there would be serious implications for reciprocal healthcare arrangements, and the regulation of medicines and medical devices. Staffing levels in the NHS and social care would also be in the firing line.

Consequently, we have a lack of parliamentary arithmetic and a need on the UKs side to have some form of a close relationship with the EU in order to avoid serious disruptions to our economy and public services. These holes in the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan are then compounded by the fact that the Prime Minister cannot personally envision backing a no-deal Brexit.

Theresa May wants to leave a prime ministerial legacy that is about more than Brexit. That was made clear in her response to calls from senior members of her cabinet to depart before local elections in May. But crashing the economy, the NHS and public services on the rocks of a hard Brexit presumably is not the “domestic agenda” she wishes to be remembered for and which she mentioned in her response. May knows that should she be seen to be at the helm of such a kamikaze endeavour she would eventually be forced into making her own David Cameron-esque departure - a fate which at this stage probably motivates her like no other.

The EU knows this and all of the above. It knows May will not give a green light to a no deal Brexit. It knows that May’s reliance on playing a game of chicken merely means the government lacks new and credible proposals to solve the problem of the Irish border - which in turn merely strengthens its conviction that the backstop be kept in place.

Of course, none of this is to argue that politicians should not take no deal off the table and seek an extension of Article 50: they should. We know that some things are too big, and the stakes too high to be left to political manoeuvrings. Brexit is, if nothing else, a very real example of what can happen when political calculations go spectacularly wrong. But once Article 50 is extended, as I predict it will be, politicians from across parliament will then have to face some tough choices.

Labour may feel quietly confident that it has a workable solution. Especially after its proposal for a permanent customs union appeared to receive strong support from the EU. But it is not hard to understand why the EU signalled its approval: keeping the UK in a customs union prevents it from becoming a tax haven. But the EU also knows that it cannot allow the UK to enjoy the benefits of a customs union whilst exempting itself from its rules on state aid. So whilst exemptions to those rules may form the centrepiece of Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit policy – as was made clear in the Labour leader’s “Build it in Britain” speech – it makes sense for the EU to signal its being open to the idea should it find itself having to negotiate with a Corbyn led government. But we can be sure that should such negotiations come to pass, that the EU will have the leverage to ensure any exemptions are minimal if not downright non-existent.

Of course, some may argue that that is a hypothetical argument. But what is not hypothetical is the fact Labour’s stance ignores the fact the UK currently enjoys a considerable degree of room to engage in state aid practices as an EU member. Its just happens to be the case that successive governments have historically chosen not to make full use of them. None of these criticisms are to deny that the aims of Corbyn’s Brexit policy are not laudable: as they are. Likewise, I am not denying that there is a grain of truth to the arguments of Lexiteers who claims World Trade Organisation rules on state aid are more flexible and less strict than the EU’s. But what difference does that make when Corbyn himself has signalled that he won’t be seeking a hard-Brexit where the UK leaves on WTO terms? If he doesn’t back a hard-Brexit, he won’t be able to make any use of those powers. The fact that polling by the TSSA union also shows that if Labour is seen to facilitate a hard-Brexit, Tory or otherwise, that it would haemorrhage seats in a forthcoming election really should bury the Lexiteer’s pipedream – Lexit is not a political option in the current state of play.

So where do we go from here? Parliament is in limbo, neither the Conservatives nor Labour are able to carry out what they claim to be capable of delivering. Successive polls conducted from 2016 to today which asked whether voters would back Remain or Leave in a second referendum have shown a consistent lead for Remain. This isn’t to say that the margins have not been tight. Nor is it to say that if there was a second referendum and a victory for Remain that we can go back to business as usual. We can’t, and we would be wrong to try. We have to recognise that there are deep problems in this country that led to the Brexit vote in the first place and that we have to address them. But it is also clear that if parliament can no longer function and MPs are at an impasse, that it is then the people, who must break the deadlock through a popular vote.

Ends

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