Westminster by night

Brexit by March 2019: Does the government have a plan and will Labour oppose any part of it?

Published: 8 December 2016
Author: Kirsty Hughes
Wednesday’s vote is likely to be remembered as the day when 84% of MPs at Westminster voted to set the UK on a rapid path to Brexit, says Kirsty Hughes, with the Tory government of the day supported by the main Labour opposition.
The UK is on the path to Brexit by early 2019. On Wednesday, the House of Commons voted by 461 votes to 89 that Brexit talks should start by March next year, through triggering Article 50 by then. By 448 votes to 75, the Commons also said that the government should set out its Brexit plan to the House of Commons. Opposition came from the SNP, LibDems, the SDLP, one Green MP, one Tory MP and 23 Labour rebels.
Given Article 50’s two year time limit, the UK looks likely to be outside the EU by March 2019. Might this large House of Commons majority for Brexit be reduced, or the timetable slowed down, when the government brings its plans to parliament? Given Labour’s current stance on Brexit, this seems unlikely.
In Edinburgh on Tuesday, Keir Starmer – Labour’s shadow Brexit minister – said Labour would “respect and accept” the outcome of the EU referendum and would not “frustrate” Article 50. Starmer, who moved the opposition motion on Wednesday for the government to present a plan, said he understood the government could not give a running commentary and that what he wanted to see was a “basic plan”.
What sort of plan the government may set before the House of Commons is unclear. The Supreme Court judgement expected in early January, on whether the government must consult parliament, will determine whether the government will put forward an actual bill, and whether Holyrood gets a vote too.
In the Commons, Starmer set out five tests he would apply to the government’s plan when it is put forward. But the chances of any real political or parliamentary battle at Westminster over the nature of Brexit, let alone whether to reconsider the ‘Leave’ decision, look minimal indeed. For now, Labour and Tory positions on Brexit are most striking in their similarities not their differences.
Starmer’s first test is what the Brexit plan says on remaining within the EU’s customs union and single market. 
But neither Labour nor Conservatives want to remain in the single market (as the SNP, Greens and LibDems do). They both want ‘the fullest possible’ or ‘maximum’ access to the single market. The Tories have been clear they will no longer agree to free movement of people between the EU and UK – or accept European Court of Justice jurisdiction – and equally the EU27 have been clear that they will not grant anything like full access to the single market in that case. 
Labour’s position on migration has been more confused, with Corbyn reluctant to restrict migration while Keir Starmer and others have said migration must be reduced – the latter will again mean a harder Brexit given the views of the EU27. A Labour rebellion on an outline Brexit plan for the UK to have its own migration policy and not continue with free movement currently looks unlikely.
Starmer also asks in his tests if the Brexit plan will address the concerns of the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales. Yet in his Edinburgh visit this week, Starmer rather echoed Theresa May’s comments on the UK negotiating as one for the whole UK. “It is difficult to see” said Starmer “how any part of the UK being in the single market and the rest outside would work in practice.” He went on: “Those advocating [this] need to put more meat on the bones of how it would work”.
Starmer’s other three tests concern there being “enough detail”: for the Commons Brexit select committee to scrutinise the Brexit plan, for the Office of Budget Responsibility to produce forecasts with respect to the plan, and “to build genuine consensus”.
In his comments in Edinburgh, Starmer sounded genuinely concerned at the extent of divisions across the UK since the Brexit vote, and the need to “heal” those divisions. Yet Labour’s approach to Brexit – to accept the vote, not to frustrate the triggering of Article 50, and to ask for a “basic plan” look like an approach that will appeal mostly to the 52% not the 48%.
It is possible but currently unlikely that Theresa May will plump for an ultra-hard Brexit where the UK simply reverts to WTO rules, with no special trade deal with the EU. But what is much more likely is that, as May has said, the UK will ask for a ‘bespoke’ deal with the EU – something Labour supports – and that it will set out its goals in the House of Commons as being to get maximum access to the single market, which Labour also supports.
Labour will, doubtless, make demands around protecting employment and environmental legislation but how the government will approach that will probably only be seen once the Great Repeal Bill returns EU laws to the UK.
The only main distinction between Labour and Tories at the moment is that Labour has said it supports the UK staying in the EU’s customs union – which allows tariff-free trade within it, while setting common tariffs to third country goods. If the Tories reject this, perhaps there could be a Commons majority to impose it on the government Brexit negotiating strategy (since LibDems and SNP would also be likely to support staying in the customs union). But it would require Tory rebels too – who were notable by their absence in Wednesday’s vote.
And anyway the Tories may well set out a position where they aspire to be in the customs union for some but not all sectors (as May and other Tories have hinted). The EU27 has said they will reject any attempt at ‘cherry-picking’ but Turkey has a customs union with the EU that includes most but not all industrial products so a deal may be possible. Being in the customs union might limit May’s ability to negotiate big new trade deals for the UK elsewhere – but if those trade deals focus on agriculture and services, while goods stayed in the customs union, it could be a compromise she would go for. That would leave Labour with little to oppose.
Theresa May’s refusal to bring a bill to the Commons or to publish a White Paper on Brexit has been an extraordinary rejection of basic democratic accountability and debate. Keir Starmer’s motion in the House of Commons has ensured some plan will be brought to the Commons, and the Supreme Court may well ensure the government must bring forward a bill. 
But Wednesday’s vote is likely to be remembered as the day when 84% of MPs at Westminster voted to set the UK on a rapid path to Brexit, with the Tory government of the day supported by the main Labour opposition.

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