By Lucy Powell
Theresa May’s signature “nothing has changed” mantra must be jettisoned before she plunges us into a disastrous no deal Brexit which will scar our country for decades.
Compromise is a dirty word in Westminster, and our wider politics, as toxicity and absolutism have taken hold. Yet if politicians are to do the job we were elected to do, and make a decision on the best path for our country, it is a word that we now all need to re-learn. While many shout louder into their loud-hailers, its time we were a bit more honest about the upsides and, particularly, downsides of any option.
Increasingly as MPs we are coming to this realisation, even if the headlines suggest deadlock. For example, I’ve produced a pamphlet with Conservative MP Rob Halfon, to find a way through the Brexit impasse, Common Market 2.0, supported by the cross-Party Norway Plus Group of MPs. It respects the referendum result, ensures we leave the political institution of the EU whilst delivering a strong economic relationship which protects jobs and livelihoods. Britain would join the European Economic Area guaranteeing single market access. We would join a customs union too which would solve the backstop issue.
This idea is widely gaining traction, with significant support this week from the Mirror newspaper backing the plan, and the commentator Owen Jones. There has also been movement towards this from the right, with arch Eurosceptic Dan Hannan, floating pure EFTA membership. Indeed, the “Norway” model was once the preserve of prominent leave campaigners.
As with any of the options before us, it’s not perfect and we’ve been honest about that.
Common Market 2.0 would mean a close economic relationship with the EU, but a loss of direct political influence. However, any deal that negates the backstop by creating regulatory alignment would also require us to follow Single Market regulations. Remaining in the EU is not the bastion of political control either: as one of 28 countries where single market regulations are agree by majority voting, things often don’t go our way.
Yet we would not be a “rule taker” when it comes to fisheries policy, the Common Agricultural Policy, home affairs and the European Court of Justice as we would be leaving the EU. Some, often those advocating remain, ironically, say it would be a difficult sell as we would still accept free movement. However, while I would never argue we would gain full control of our borders, Common Market 2.0 would give our government the unilateral right to suspend free movement should there be sound economic or societal reasons to do so.
I am realistic about these drawbacks while setting them in the context of the significant economic upsides of being in the single market, as well as the political advantages of being in a new, stronger alliance of countries outside the EU in EFTA. This is what many thought they’d voted for in the 1970s and what they wanted when they voted leave.
I respect those with strongly-held pro-Remain views yet I don’t think, with respect, they are presenting their arguments with the same realism. When I hear Tony Blair (again) on the radio, his argument to remain in the EU via another referendum is subject to little scrutiny. In the competing market place of ideas, shouting the loudest and whipping up the base gets you so far, but it’s not going to get us through this mess. We all have to be more frank.
The path to another vote is blocked by the parliamentary arithmetic, and it is completely unclear what would now be the “leave” proposition on the ballot. The main argument for another referendum is not nobody knew what leave meant. We still have no clear view of this as parliament can’t decide. And whilst I could countenance the circumstances where I might vote for another referendum as a last resort if it was the only option other than no deal, I would do so knowing honestly how difficult it would be to square with the country. So even if you conclude another referendum is desirable (and I don’t) it doesn’t mean we can duck the difficult issue of what leaving would look like, because Parliament will not countenance “no deal” either.
Simply remaining in the EU equally has its faults, and I say this as someone who headed up Britain in Europe for years. For decades we have been telling people the EU is not perfect but we are better in than out. Yet there is no plan to reform the EU to answer the concerns many have.
A clean break from the political Uunion and a re-set of our relationship with Europe may be the best way forward. Leavers promised the public the ‘exact same benefits’ for our economy outside the EU if we left. Remainers want to keep us closely aligned to Europe. A new common market with Europe, built on shared economic interests, does just that, and offers the prospect of a new stronger relationship with Europe outside political Union.
What this entire situation needs freeing from is notions of “red lines”, arguments being only presented for their upsides, not their downsides, and everyone continuing to shout louder and louder at each other instead of listening. This is the biggest political and constitutional crisis of our lifetimes it will only be resolved by compromise not by clickbait in echo-chambers.
Lucy Powell is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Manchester Central