It is time to acknowledge broken promises on trade

  • If there were any doubt that the Labour leadership is happy to facilitate Brexit, look no further than the treatment of Labour frontbenchers who defied the whip

  • Chuka Umunna MP

We need to get back to basics on Brexit. That is my overwhelming feeling after the last week. Delusion abounds as the two main parties indulge the fantasy that there is somehow a “good” Brexit deal to be had. They should at least have the honesty to admit that more than two years on, there is not a deal that can match the one we have now as a member of the EU.

On the Labour side, there is no sign our eurosceptic leadership will do what they promised and abide by the wishes of the majority of our members by committing to a people’s vote, which would give those we represent the final decision on whether to proceed with this Brexit disaster or to stop it.

This goes beyond the leader. Several members of the shadow cabinet have argued strongly against a new referendum including Angela Rayner, Barry Gardiner, Jon Trickett, and Ian Lavery. The general secretaries of two of the biggest affiliates to the party – the Unite and CWU trade unions – also reject it. This is quite extraordinary given the evidence of the damage Brexit is already doing in Labour-voting communities – just ask the people of Sunderland where Nissan has announced it is abandoning plans to build a new model citing Brexit uncertainty as a reason.

If there were any doubts that the Labour leadership is happy to facilitate Brexit (though keen to avoid responsibility for its consequences), look no further than the treatment of Labour frontbenchers who defied the whip last Tuesday and failed to back measures which would have enabled the House of Commons to prevent a damaging “no deal” scenario.

Those frontbenchers have not been subject to any sanction, whereas several were sacked for voting for my amendment to the Queen’s Speech debate at the start of this Parliament in June 2017 – an amendment which sought to ensure the UK stays in the Single Market and the Customs Union as a bare minimum.

The preferred option of the frontbench is for a Labour government to pursue a customs union arrangement with the EU provided the UK continues to have a say on trade deals – something the EU will not agree to. From the leadership’s half-hearted campaigning for Remain in 2016 (a generous description), to the utter failure to provide a coherent alternative to the Tory Brexit policy, Labour will not escape responsibility for this mess unless there is a clear change in policy.

On the Conservative side, the party mostly united around and voted for a proposition which the EU has already objected to: putting in place alternative arrangements to the so-called “backstop” provisions to avoid a hard Irish border.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, reiterated in The Sunday Times, what everyone in the EU has been telling me for months: “there are no credible alternative arrangements, put forward by anyone, that achieve the shared goal of the UK and EU to avoid a hard border.” The cross-party Northern Ireland Select Committee – which includes hard-line Brexiters – confirmed as much in their report on this issue last year. They said that there is “no visibility of any technical solutions, anywhere in the world, beyond the aspirational, that would remove the need for physical infrastructure at the border.”  

The PM chooses to ignore this because it is more important to her to keep her party together than to protect the national interest. Her party, in the main, doesn’t want to be in any customs union at all because they believe in the fiction that new trade deals with non-EU countries will more than make up for the loss of trade with our biggest customer, the EU.

Where are all those trade deals? They are nowhere to be seen. Shortly before the 2016 referendum, the official Leave campaign – led by the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liam Fox – declared in a press release: “after we Vote Leave, we would immediately be able to start negotiating new trade deals with emerging economies and the world’s biggest economies (the US, China and Japan, as well as Canada, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, and so on), which could enter into force immediately after the UK leaves the EU.” I’ve put down parliamentary questions to ministers asking where these missing trade deals are and they cannot tell me where to find them.

In his Conservative Party conference speech the year after the referendum, Fox, the International Trade Secretary went further and boasted that “we’ll have up to 40 [trade agreements] ready for one second after midnight in March 2019.” He went on to say “all these faint hearts saying we cannot do it – it’s absolute rubbish.” It turns out he was the one dishing out the garbage. This is simply not going to happen.

All of this is important because it brings us, full circle, back to one of the basic arguments for leaving the EU: the idea we will be doing all these new trade deals around the world which will be vastly more beneficial than the deals we enjoy with the rest of the world through the EU. When this argument falls, there really is not much else left with which to defend the concept of Brexit.

When the PM returns to parliament with whatever revisions to the withdrawal agreement she is able to secure, we have to return to these basic arguments as we seek to persuade MPs on all sides – Labour and Tory – to vote against the PM’s deal, which will be nowhere near as good as the deal we have now as an EU member.