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 the government’s negotiations of a deal with the EU were beginning to approach their conclusion before I set out my position to you.
Before I come to that, however, 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 also to try and argue for the best possible deal with the EU; for the guaranteed rights of EU citizens living in Britain; and for the protection of all the things – from environmental regulations and workers’ rights to vital public sector funding and staff – that we only have because of the EU.
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 from the government, compared to the false promises of the Leave campaign, was what the country wanted.
To that end, I argued vociferously for a second referendum, with any deal negotiated by the government up against the option to remain. Instead, we had last December’s 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 have to accept that the argument has been lost, not once but twice, and there is frankly no possibility of re-opening that debate now, nor any democratic basis to do so.
The outcome of 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 has been a law unto itself.
In other words, after last December, whatever deal the government come back with at the end of their negotiations is the one we are going to be stuck with from January 1st, whether we like it or not, and no matter what damage it will do to our country.
And I have absolutely no doubt – based on the extensive conversations I have had across the country in recent months, from business and unions to public services and charities – that any deal the government manages to negotiate will indeed do huge long-term damage across a wide range of areas, and cause enormous short-term disruption.
However, in those same conversations, one point has been repeatedly made clear to me: that even a deeply damaging deal is far, far better than breaking away with the EU without a deal at all, with no mechanisms to resolve emerging problems, and no platform to build better future arrangements.
For that reason, I cannot argue to vote against the government’s deal once negotiations have concluded, no matter its deficiencies, when literally the only alternative at this stage is leaving with no deal at all.
At the same time, the last-minute nature of any deal the government secures must be acknowledged, as it means that businesses will have only a matter of days to properly prepare for their new reality and Parliament will not be given enough time to scrutinise the deal as we should.
I obviously do not want to be in this position, and I sincerely wish our country was not in this position, but we are where we are, and it is the twice-expressed democratic will of the British people that we continue down this path.
And there is a further important point. If the deal the government secures is as damaging as I fear it will be, on a range of issues, from people’s jobs and wellbeing to our country’s national security, then we will have to deal with those issues as best and as quickly we can. It will do no good just to sit back and criticise the causes of those problems instead.
So there may be tough times ahead, on top of those we are already facing because of Coronavirus, but the only answer to that 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 the crises affecting our country.
That is what I will be 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