On Wednesday night, 245 Labour MPs including myself, with the support of the other opposition parties and 11 Tory rebels, passed an amendment to the Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill. The amendment was to enshrine in law the right for Parliament to vote on the final agreement with the EU before it is signed. Clearly there is no point in having a vote after the agreement is signed. And actually there is no point in having a “take-it-or-leave-it” vote either – Parliament needs to know that it can, if necessary, alter the agreement in time for that to be agreed with the EU. The Government intends to bring the agreement before Parliament in October 2018, so that should leave ample time for any last-minute tweaks that Parliament votes for to be cleared with the EU negotiators before April 2019.
Giving Parliament the final word forces the Prime Minister to listen carefully to what Parliament is saying before we ever get to the vote. At all stages during the negotiations she needs to know that whatever she agrees with Michel Barnier needs to be acceptable to the majority of the Members of Parliament as well. If we did not have that safeguard, the very real danger is that the only voices she would be listening to would be those of her own Party – not just David Davis and Boris Johnson but also extreme Tory backbenchers like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries.
Next week we will have our last chance to make any further changes to the Withdrawal Bill.
This Bill is not about whether Britain leaves the EU – that issue was settled by the referendum result and the Article 50 Bill. Labour MPs, including myself, respect the referendum result and recognise that Britain is leaving the EU. This Bill is about how we leave the EU, what role Parliament has and how we safeguard our rights. That doesn’t mean that I think the referendum decision was the right decision, but I am passionate about supporting democracy and I think it would be a disaster for the trust that voters place in their elected representatives if we chose to ignore the result. Opposition MPs fight to get the best for our constituents in the House of Commons, but we have to respect the decision of voters in towns like Colchester and Lowestoft to vote for Conservative MPs which has resulted in a Conservative Government. You only have to look at countries like Turkey and Egypt to see what happens when politicians ignore the result of elections. So we will be leaving the European Union in 2019, much as I might have wished it otherwise.
That doesn’t mean we will just lie back and let Theresa May make all the decisions. Labour is fighting for a Brexit deal that does the very best to protect jobs, the economy, the rights of British people at work and in their daily lives, and the protection of our environment. Conservative MPs have voted down Labour’s amendments to protect workers’ rights, to safeguard environmental and animal welfare standards, to put a workable 2-year transitional period into law, to protect the devolution settlement with Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland, and to bring the Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law. We lost the votes on these points, but we won the arguments, and Theresa May has quietly changed her position to reflect many of the arguments we have made, in particular allowing a Committee of Parliament to scrutinise the delegated powers that are coming back to the Government from EU law.
Next Wednesday, on the final day for debate on amendments, we will be opposing the Government’s amendment to their own Bill to fix the date and time of withdrawal. Why would anyone want to tie their own hands when it comes to a complex and difficult negotiation? If the Government finds that they need an additional week in order to agree the best possible deal for our withdrawal, it would be absurd for us to automatically withdraw at 11pm on 29 March 2018 without achieving that best possible deal.
The debates we have had in Parliament over the EU Withdrawal Bill come down to where you think power should lie – should we expect and allow Parliament to be in control of decisions, or should all the power rest with a single person? We tested that question with a bloody civil war between 1642 and 1651. This time round we are testing it by democracy – I know which I prefer.