Paul Blomfield: The vote on Brexit was no blank cheque from Labour

THE House of Commons voted last week to give a second reading to the Government's Bill to trigger the negotiations on leaving the European Union.

Shadow Brexit Minister Paul Blomfield sets out Labour's strategy.
Shadow Brexit Minister Paul Blomfield sets out Labour's strategy.

That isn’t the end of the matter. It’s just the start. It puts the Bill on the Order Paper and this week we’re debating it in detail. Together with Labour colleagues, I have tabled a series of amendments to shape the terms of the negotiations and to ensure that the Government are accountable to the British people for it.

There is a long process ahead and the Government have to get it right. People voted to come out of the EU last June, they did not vote to lose out. And that’s what is at stake. I campaigned relentlessly for the UK to remain in the EU – for jobs, for our place in the world and as the best way to tackle the biggest issues we face from climate change to terrorism. I was deeply upset by the result. But I accept that we lost. No one voted on June 23 in the belief that Parliament would override the result, and it would undermine democracy if we did. 

I understand the strength of feeling from those who urged me to vote against triggering Article 50. I share it. Leaving the EU challenges everything that I believe in. That sense of loss is amplified by the disturbing political developments in the US.

So I thought long and hard about last week’s vote, and particularly reflected on the conflicting vote of my constituency, estimated at 70 per cent remain, and the country. But last week’s vote was also about confidence in democratic politics. As we’ve seen with the election of Donald Trump, the growth of the populist right in Europe and the divisions sown by the referendum campaign, this is a challenging moment for democratic values.

If ‘Remain’ had won the referendum and a pro-Brexit Parliament voted to take us out of the EU regardless, there would have been outrage. That’s true the other way round and, however they voted, most people do not want to obstruct triggering Article 50. A recent opinion poll shows that 68 per cent of people, including roughly half of remain voters, accept the result.

But last week’s vote does not give 
the Government a blank cheque. The priority now is to get the terms of our 
exit right.

Labour’s amendments aim to establish broad negotiating principles on full tariff and impediment free access to the single market, as well as maintaining employment, consumer, tax avoidance and environmental protections that we have secured through the EU – and we want the Government to guarantee the rights of EU nationals living in the UK before negotiations start.

We are also seeking further accountability of the Government to the British people through regular reports to Parliament, and we want to ensure that the vote they have conceded on the final deal comes at a point when we can still influence the outcome.

Last week’s White Paper confirmed that the Government plans to take Britain out of the single market and the customs union. But her Brexit Secretary David Davis has said they want the “exact same benefits” as being inside. That’s a tough challenge, but we will hold them to it. We want a deal that protects our ability to successfully trade goods with, and deliver services to, the EU.

After the Prime Minister said that she didn’t want to keep “bits of membership”, the Government appears to have changed course. The White Paper states that they now want to maintain collaboration in science and research, in security and defence, and other key areas that Labour has been pushing them on. We will hold them to account on these issues too, making sure our universities continue to work together and that we stay part of agencies from Europol to the European Medicines Agency.

The Prime Minister’s threat to turn the UK into a tax haven off the shores of Europe if she is unable to achieve her aims is wholly unacceptable, and we have tabled an amendment to prevent it. Her threat harms our negotiating position with our European partners, and makes British living standards a bargaining chip. She has no mandate to implement it. Nobody voted for the Government to rip up our welfare state and start a trade war.

So far the Prime Minister has only been speaking to the 52 per cent who voted leave, and not even to all of them.

This week Labour is pressing for a deal not just for the 52 per cent, or the 48 per cent, but for 100 per cent of the British people. Nothing less will do.

Paul Blomfield is Labour MP for Sheffield Central and a Shadow Minister for Exiting the European Union.