May must let the people vote on her Brexit plan

  • This whole sorry mess simply illustrates that you will not be able to resolve Brexit in Westminster

  • Chuka Umunna MP

The resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson come as no surprise.

Some refer to Davis’s past record of walking out of roles. But, following the appointment of his former permanent secretary, Ollie Robbins, as prime minister Theresa May’s European Union advisor last September, it was quite clear Robbins has been in the driving seat of the Brexit car and Davis was a mere passenger.

In my role as co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary group on EU relations, I regularly meet with ministers and ambassadors in the governments of the other 27 member states of the EU. The word back from the other side of the table is that clearly Robbins, in their view, was and is in charge of negotiations. European capitals see the UK Brexit secretary role as being little more than May’s fixer charged with keeping the Tory parliamentary party sweet, whose soap opera they read about in the FT over breakfast. No secretary of state wants to be reduced to that, playing second fiddle to the official who used to report to them.

Boris was sent to the Foreign Office in part because it involved plenty of travel and he could be kept safely out of the way. He was clearly not suited to the role – which requires subtlety and a command of the detail – and it showed. Appointing him as Britain’s top diplomat was always seen as a bit of a joke – and “a joke” is a fitting description of his tenure.

That said, neither was happy with the substance of May’s proposals, agreed to by the cabinet last Friday at Chequers. In short, May has proposed a package that would revolve around a free trade area for goods which is neither of the extreme or soft Brexit variety, and has so far ended up pleasing no one.

She has proposed the UK and EU maintain a common rulebook for all goods with the ability to diverge in the future on those rules if the UK so wishes. There would be joint institutional framework involving both EU and UK courts to police the new arrangements. And, there would also be a fiendishly complicated “facilitated customs arrangement”, which essentially establishes a dual tariff UK/EU customs area where the UK would act as a customs duty collector for the EU enabled by to-be-invented technology. It is claimed this arrangement will work and be frictionless, avoiding the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland. Free movement of people will end but in its place something rather similar is proposed, called a “mobility framework” to allow UK and EU citizens to continue to work and study in each other’s territories.

For the hard Brexiteers, like Johnson, Davis and Steve Baker (his junior minister who also resigned today) this is simply not hard enough. They want a complete break in the relationship with the EU, so out would go any notion of a common rulebook for starters. They demand this kind of Brexit in the full knowledge they cannot command a majority for it in parliament. Baker became the first leading Brexiteer to acknowledge as much in his resignation letter to May when he said: “I acknowledge the parliamentary opinion and arithmetic which constrain the government’s freedom of action.” The European Research Group, the organising vehicle for Baker’s group of hard Brexiteers, has no plan on what they will do given they lack support in parliament for their kind of Brexit.

For those who have argued for a different course altogether – like me – the notion that what the prime minister is proposing is “soft”, given it offers nothing for service industries which make up a majority of the UK economy, is fanciful. Tech UK represents 950 technology firms employing over 700,000 people. Their CEO Julian David says a goods-only deal, which the PM is offering, “would reduce access for services to the European market” and that “given that 80 per cent of tech exports are services, and our biggest market remains the EU, this will have very real consequences”. He also notes that a huge number of goods rely on services contracts to operate.

Yesterday, over 100 business leaders – including the founders of Innocent Drinks, Pret, Waterstones, Zoopla, Net-a-Porter, Domino’s, Yo Sushi and Jack Wills – wrote an open letter to MPs dismissing May’s customs proposals agreed at Chequers as costly and bureaucratic. They say the proposals “would amount to the British government tying the hands of British business” and instead urge MPs to get behind cross-party efforts to amend the government’s Trade and Customs Bills to, at the very least, insist the government aim for continued participation in the EU customs union if Brexit happens. 

Before he resigned Davis had warned the PM that, in any event, her Chequers proposals would be rejected by the EU. On this he was correct. In the short term, the EU institutions will give May a bit of space to steady the ship and will not immediately shoot down her plans, particularly given Davis’s and Johnson’s resignations. But, they will in due course raise their objections. One senior EU official told me they saw Chequers as a “complete sideshow” and the PM’s proposals were “all about party management” rather than putting something forward which the other side of the negotiating table could accept. With regard to the customs proposals, they said “the EU doesn’t outsource the collection of customs duties to any third country”. Another senior official said they were “horribly complex” and “not workable at all”.

In the end, May’s proposals show that the government has yet to rid itself of the habit of seeking to have your cake and eat it. The EU institutions have always been clear that the UK is being offered the chance to continue participating in the EU customs union and single market – which no other non-EU country has the benefit of – or we can cease doing so. Being half in and half out of these entities, which May keeps reverting to, is not something they will entertain.

This whole sorry mess today simply illustrates that you will not be able to resolve Brexit in Westminster. It took the cabinet two years to agree a common position last Friday, and now that is falling apart. It does not meet the Labour frontbench’s tests for what would amount to a good deal so there will not be a consensus in the Commons on a way forward – parliament is not of one view nor is it likely to be at the end of this process. This is why more and more people are calling for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit. We cannot leave a decision with such far-reaching consequences to the circus that passes for this government – it should rest with the people.