WE now stand on the precipice of disaster. And wasn’t it always going to come to this with Theresa May? The Prime Minister chose a course which pleased no one, hiring one arch Brexiteer after another, challenging them to follow through on her promises of free trade unicorns and post-Brexit nirvana, only to see them achieve nothing and resign. She pushed back on any form of cross-party consensus, All this while the clock ticks towards the March 29 deadline.
We are where we are. Now is the time for an honest appraisal of the situation facing the country and for grown up, level-headed and practical solutions. It is my contention that the most practical way of dealing with our March deadline, is to extend Article 50.
There are three main reasons for this. The first is that despite tough talk, we are nowhere near ‘Brexit ready’. In October, the National Audit Office told the Prime Minister that it was too late to prepare UK borders for a no-deal Brexit and that only one of 12 ‘critical systems’ would be ready in time. This was, in their assessment, due to the lack of preparation and the Government’s negotiations with the EU 27. This problem is underlined by a lack of full access to security databases, leaving us with a border nightmare and an organised criminal’s dream.
The House of Lords EU Energy and Environment committee has recently warned of the ‘severe consequences’ of the lack of preparedness on the regulations of chemicals and chemical trade. The UK chemicals industry accounts for £12.7bn every year, making it the UK’s second biggest manufacturing industry. Around 73 per cent of our chemical imports come from the EU.
Whilst Brexiteers and the European Research Group (ERG) are spouting the virtues of World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules (despite the crippling tariff rates dealing out what is sure to be a devastating blow to consumers, British agriculture and manufacturing), it is not clear that we would just default to trading on those terms come March 29. Pending negotiations on agricultural products, as well as on the Government Procurement Agreement, mean that the ‘WTO terms now’ slogan may be more accurately changed to ‘WTO terms later maybe’. The fantasy of easy free trade agreements is slipping. The Department for International Trade were clear that there is no prospect of free trade deals with Japan and South Korea, two of our main suppliers of electronics.
This brings me to my second reason for trying to extend Article 50. For all the above reasons and more, the UK cannot countenance a no-deal Brexit. We may not agree on much in the House of Commons, but we do agree on this. I also believe that the Prime Minister, whilst wildly incompetent, privately agrees with this too. Businesses large and small in my constituency have told me that a no-deal Brexit is the biggest existential threat to their organisations that they have faced and is putting jobs and livelihoods at risk. We cannot hold this sword of Damocles above the head of UK business and UK workers any longer. We must reject no-deal and do so in legislation.
The final reason for the extension is to simply allow time for Parliament to negotiate a solution. We must test all of the Brexit options to see if there is a majority in Parliament for any one of them. I suspect that will show stalemate, no majority for any one Brexit outcome. In that instance, we must have time to campaign for, organise and see through a new referendum that allows the British people to make a final decision on the Brexit question.
Whilst I hear and understand the frustrations of those who voted Leave in 2016, this whole process has revealed a fundamental flaw in the whole premise. Nobody defined what ‘leave’ meant. This is the root cause of the current deadlock and it is only by conducting a new poll, with a clearly defined Brexit and the option of remain, that we will truly understand the ‘will of the people’.
My primary concern in Parliament is still to push through the amendment in the name of Yvette Cooper. This amendment would allow for a Bill that would extend Article 50 if there is no withdrawal agreement passed by a defined date. This would extend the process and effectively take no deal off the table. I am convinced that this common sense step is the best way of avoiding crashing out with no deal and of finding an answer to our current crisis that protects our industry, economy and people. Once Parliament has agreed a deal, the deal must be presented to the people for a final say.
Alex Sobel is the Labour MP for Leeds North West.