Article 50 debate: Labour has given the Tories free rein over Brexit

Did Diane Abbott get lost in the fog on the way to Westminster? PA/Yui Mok

The debates in the House of Commons over whether to trigger Article 50 have produced some interesting arguments. Many of the parliamentarians showed themselves to be passionately in favour of Brexit, others were far more guarded. Some spoke in opposition to the whole idea of leaving the EU.

It was, some may suggest, a mixed bag of perspectives motivated by either pragmatism or conviction. Conservative Kenneth Clarke came out fighting once more for Britain in the EU – which has been a consistent position throughout his career. Fellow Conservative Anna Soubry performed well, saying “I believe history will not be kind to this parliament, or the government”. Others simply came forward to lament the situation before announcing their intention to vote to trigger Article 50.

Faces from the recent past such as George Osborne and Ed Miliband reminded us of how we got here. However their contributions were treated as mere footnotes in a debate that seemed far too fleeting for the arguments MPs wanted to make. Given this was a key moment in British history, it seemed somehow inadequate that the debates would be so short and the speeches so concise.

One of the most impressive speeches was made by Madeleine Moon, Labour MP for Bridgend. She gave a conviction-led set of reasons for opposing the triggering of Article 50, describing her heart-felt belief that the UK had arrived at its current position through a trajectory of misinformation and fear. She reminded the house of the “shockingly irresponsible referendum campaign, full of lies, misinformation, dogwhistle politics, fear and xenophobia” that produced the vote to leave the EU. The infamous claim – supported by her fellow Labour MPs Gisela Stuart and Kate Hoey – that £350m per week will be given to the NHS, has become symbolic of the campaign that Moon criticised.

Moon also stood up for the core Labour values which appeared to be missing from those who supported Brexit. Of voters she said:

People did not tell me they were happy to lose their workers’ rights, to lose jobs, have lower standards of living or goods or reduced opportunity for their children and grandchildren. They did not talk about wanting to leave the single market or the customs union and pursuing a bold and ambitious free trade agreement.

For her, the government had failed to produce the necessary reassurances that basic workers and social rights would be protected. The Conservative Brexiteers and their allies in Labour Leave had instead been consumed by an idealised vision of what Brexit will look like. It is a romanticised notion of easy prosperity, free trade, and open to the world which in reality is looking less cohesive.

Indeed, Moon asked:

Can we trust any part of our economic security to Trump’s America? The inauguration speech, the support for torture, the ban on Muslims entering the US, the anti-climate change rhetoric, the clear statement of America first, and the commitment to end trade agreements that are not in America’s best interest, gives me no confidence that America represents a great trading opportunity for the UK.

This is a significant issue as it becomes increasingly clear that Brexit means Trump.

Who is the opposition, again?

What has been most surprising in these debates, of course, was the position taken by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Not only is he willing to stand aside and let the Tories have free rein over the Brexit process, but he also seems to have actively contributed towards the current Brexit narrative.

By using an unnecessary three-line whip on Labour MPs to back triggering Article 50, he has tied his own agenda to a narrow – and decidedly un-Labour – Tory vision of a hard Brexit. The vision is to have a series of free trade agreements outside of the single market, with little or no regulation over issues like health and safety.

This is an own goal. Corbyn’s decision will isolate the majority of Labour’s supporters who voted Remain only to land Labour in a three-way fight with the Tories and UKIP for the support of the 52% of people who voted to Leave. It is an unedifying spectacle that will benefit the SNP and the Liberal Democrats – who are already selling themselves as the pro-EU party for Remainers.

As the negotiations now begin, it is increasingly likely that Brexit will please those who support the classic economic liberalism espoused by those who oppose social democratic values. It will be about deregulation, rather than protecting workers. The success of the UK will be defined only in economic terms, rather than science, technology, culture or innovation. It will become simply UK plc.

The idea of a more progressive/social Brexit is simply an unrealistic premise in the current narrative. Corbyn has surrendered the debate to the hard Brexiteers. Many in Labour still want to fight but without the leadership on board, such an endeavour is likely to fail.

It would of course be facile to suggest a group with such limited impact as Labour Leave could be blamed for allowing a hard Tory Brexit to occur, however it did certainly contribute towards Labour’s divisions on this issue. That has led to this sorry lack of debate on the Article 50 bill and has, no doubt, given succour to UKIP as it seeks to undermine the values so long associated with the Labour party.