Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
Thank you for contacting me concerning the latest developments in Britain’s exit from the European Union, and let me firstly apologise for the delay in replying. I wanted to wait until our recent debates on this issue in the House of Commons had concluded before writing to you.
First, let me return to the basic issue at hand. I campaigned vociferously to remain in the EU during the 2016 referendum campaign because I firmly believed that staying in the EU was the best choice for our economy, our society, and our country’s place in the world.
I was devastated that we lost that referendum, but as a democrat, I felt duty bound both to accept the result, and argue for the best possible outcome: one which would guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK; protect the gains won from EU membership, from workers’ rights to environmental regulations; and do the least possible damage to jobs and the economy.
However, I also always believed that – once the reality of Brexit became clear – there would need to be a further injection of democracy, designed to ask whether what was actually on offer was what the country wanted, compared to the false promises of the Leave campaign.
To that end, I argued for a second referendum, with any deal negotiated by the government up against the option to remain. Instead, we had the December 2019 election, fought on the single issue of whether to give Boris Johnson a mandate to negotiate whatever deal he liked.
Again, we were badly defeated, and as bitterly disappointed as I was by that outcome, I had to accept that – at that point – the argument had been lost, not once but twice, and there was no possibility of re-opening that debate again, nor any democratic basis to do so.
The election also nullified the ability of Parliament, and Labour as an opposition, to push for the negotiation of a less damaging deal, or for the extension of the transition period to allow for better preparation. With a majority of 80 seats, the government became a law unto itself.
In other words, after that 2019 election, whatever deal the government came back with at the end of their negotiations was the one we were going to be stuck with from January 1st, whether we liked it or not, and no matter what damage it would do to our country.
Nevertheless, it was also clear to me in all my discussions – from business groups to trade unions – that even a damaging deal would be far, far better than breaking away from the EU without a deal at all, with no ability to trade without tariffs, no mechanisms to resolve emerging problems, and no platform to build better future arrangements.
For that reason, I was adamant from several months ago that – if the government eventually managed to secure a deal, and there was no prospect of, and no time for, further negotiations – then there was no way that I would vote against that deal, no matter its deficiencies, when literally the only alternative at that stage would have been leaving with no deal at all.
Once my mind was made up on that, the only question was whether to abstain or vote for the deal, and – on that – the collective decision of the Shadow Cabinet was to do the latter. That was an extremely difficult judgement, and I know many Labour colleagues, in Parliament, in my constituency, and up and down the country, have disagreed with it.
Some have argued that I should – as a point of principle – not have voted for any form of deal, especially one which exacerbates the damage caused by Brexit. But would they feel the same, I’ve asked them, if the current parliamentary arithmetic was different and my vote had been necessary to prevent a no deal outcome? Because if so, where is the point of principle?
Others have argued, from a political standpoint, that voting for the deal makes it difficult to criticise the government for the impact it is having. Again, I fully understand that viewpoint, and all I can say in response is that I am personally doing my best in the House of Commons and elsewhere to prove that it is still possible to make those criticisms effectively.
Recently, I challenged Ministers “about the chaos that is building at our ports, and the crisis that is growing for our exporters” as “trade which flowed freely just a few weeks ago grinds to a halt because of the barriers and bureaucracy that the realities of Brexit require.” And I continued as follows:
“It is not a partisan statement, but just a simple fact that we are having to go through this pain because of the fervent belief on the benches opposite that the gains to be had from doing our own trade deals with the rest of the world will eventually outweigh the losses from damaging our trading relationship with Europe.
That is the government’s leap of faith, and even if I – and many of my colleagues – have fervently disagreed with that argument in recent years, we are now in the position where, for the good of our country and the communities we serve, we have to hope that we are proved wrong and they are proved right.
But as things stand, that is not the case. Every hour of delay that passes at Dover, every consignment that is turned away, every product that is – after all – having to face tariffs because of the Rules of Origin, British businesses are losing money.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, we have not gained one single penny in extra trade from the government’s leap of faith: not one single agreement that we didn’t have before; not one export facing lower tariffs today than it did in December.”
I have challenged Ministers as well to produce the economic impact assessment conducted into the UK-EU deal. I have asked them to clarify who in government is in charge of our trading relationship with Europe and fixing the clear problems we are seeing. And every week, I am asking dozens of detailed questions to the government asking them to address those problems.
I will continue relentlessly holding the government to account for the failings of this deal and for the abject lack of preparation and planning which has exacerbated its impact, but I will also keep pushing for the practical changes and support that our businesses desperately need now.
I sincerely wish our country was not in this position, on top of the severe difficulties we face because of the pandemic, but the only answer for Labour politicians like me is the hard work required to represent our people and push for solutions, and the even harder work required to get a Labour government elected that can get a grip of all the crises affecting our country.
That is what I am trying to do, and I hope I will have your support. Please do not hesitate to contact me on this or any other matter where I may be able to help.
The Rt Hon. Emily Thornberry
Islington South and Finsbury
Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade