The last few months in Parliament have been dominated by the Brexit debate: what kind of Brexit will the Government negotiate? How will the economy of this country be affected by no longer being part of the Single Market? Will we still have access to the Customs Union? There are so many unanswered questions that it is clear the Government has absolutely no idea what to do and how to achieve it. All it knows is that the UK must leave the EU and it is determined to deliver on that one Referendum pledge.
Meanwhile, a theatrical farce has been played out in the courts of this country. The vast majority of electors voted to leave the EU in order to “get back control”, in other words to bring decision-making and the creation of laws back to the UK, presumably therefore to the United Kingdom Parliament. Yet the Government appeared determined to exclude Parliament from not only its negotiations but any aspect of its decision-making regarding what kind of future relationship the country will have with the EU. Finally, the Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday 24th January what everyone assumed it would: that Parliament must decide whether the notorious Article 50 should be invoked – the two year notice period that must be given for a member state to leave the Union.
The 137 word two clause Bill has its Second Reading on Wednesday 1st February following a two day debate. Controversially, the Labour Leadership has decided that there should be a three-line whip forcing all Labour MPs to vote for the Bill at this first stage of its complex progress through an opaque Parliamentary procedure. As all Members of Leeds North East Labour Party know, I have always been a strong supporter of the European Union and campaigned strongly for a ‘Remain’ vote last year. Whilst the country narrowly voted to leave the EU on June 23rd, Leeds North East voted by 67% to 33% to Remain in the EU. However, there is some logic in the Parliamentary Party’s position: in spite of the fact that a large majority of Labour voters throughout the country voted to remain, we lost the argument and must therefore abide by the democratic majority decision.
The Bill, once given a Second Reading (which is almost certain) will then go onto be debated in detail, and – crucially – amendments tabled by Labour (as well as other minor opposition parties) will be debated by a Committee of the Whole House, in other words by all MPs, not just in an obscure committee room somewhere in the Palace of Westminster. It is at this stage that the Party hopes it can put some shape into the negotiations and force the Government to support all the aspects of EU membership we would like to keep, like Environmental Regulations, Workers and Employment Rights for example. If none of our amendments is carried, then we need to decide whether to vote against the final unamended Bill at Third Reading on Wednesday 8th February.
Many members and constituents have contacted me to ask how I intend to vote on this Bill. The answer is that I will either abstain or vote in favour of Second Reading but will have to think very carefully about whether I vote against Third Reading if none of our amendments has been passed. Of course I will listen very carefully to the debate and may change my position if persuaded by the arguments I hear and I will try and speak in the debate if I am fortunate enough to be called by the Speaker.
Like the majority of my constituents, my disappointment and anger at the outcome of a referendum which should never have taken place is massive. I can see, as they do, the damage that Brexit will do to the living standards of the majority of the population of the UK, and potentially to the future of the UK itself. There are so many reasons why leaving the EU is going to be bad for this country, but in the end I believe in democracy, however flawed it may be. Whatever the outcome of the decision to pass the ‘Brexit Bill’ – amended or not – we have a rocky path ahead. As a Labour Party we will have to fight hard to ensure that the UK does not turn into an offshore tax haven for the rich while the government sells off our public services to the highest bidder, because that is an ultimate battle we cannot afford to lose under any circumstances.