Simon Wren-Lewis, in his Mainly Macro economics blog, has written to suggest that it would be better for MPs to vote against Theresa May’s Bill to transfer power to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to her, foiling her plan to trigger Brexit on her terms.
However it seems to This Writer that the same reasons could be employed to encourage Labour MPs to vote in favour of the Bill – although admittedly for narrow party political purposes. Look:
A proper response to the referendum would be to note that many ways exist to leave the EU, including staying in the Single Market, and allow parliament to decide what the UK’s negotiating position should be. The statesman like response to such a narrow vote would be to seak the softest of Brexits. The fact that May does not wish that to happen is an affront to parliamentary democracy. That alone is reason enough to vote against.
This is Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s argument and the point of the amendments to the Article 50 Bill that he has tabled. It is also the point of the 50 SNP amendments. It is not reason enough to vote against the Bill, though – because Conservative MPs will be whipped to support it all the way through Parliament.
So the statesmanlike response is to amend the Bill so that it aims the UK at the softest Brexit possible. In fact, it may be that Conservative MPs, disillusioned with what they end up being asked to support, may try to scupper their own Bill as a result – but Labour/SNP/other party MPs would be unwise to count on this so the default position must continue to be voting in favour of the Bill, but on new terms thrashed out in the debate.
If May is defeated on Article 50, she will almost certainly call an immediate election. How will the fortunes of a MP that voted for Yes to triggering Article 50 compare to any that vote No? Labour MPs that vote No will lose some Leave voters, but these are likely to split between Conservatives and UKIP. They may do this even if they vote Yes because they will have read in their papers that Labour is stalling Brexit. Conservative voters that vote No are unlikely to lose many votes to UKIP. Those from either the Conservatives or Labour that vote Yes are likely to lose many Remain voters to the LibDems. How these opposing forces pan out is very difficult to judge, and is likely to vary a great deal across constituencies, and without additional information it is far from obvious why MPs should only worry about Leave voters.
If Theresa May calls an immediate election, then the right-wing media has the majority of the public whipped up into thinking that Labour is unfit to run the UK (in fact, Labour’s policy positions are far more common-sense than those of the Tories) and another Conservative majority is likely. This applies no matter which way Opposition MPs vote and is another reason for Labour MPs to support the Bill. And nobody will read that Labour is stalling Brexit.
But all this is thinking short term. MPs that are not ideologically opposed to the EU must surely know that Brexit is very likely to be a disaster. The impact of leaving the Single Market is going to be pretty bad, but as the OBR has made clear the impact of reduced immigration from the EU on the public finances is also going to be large. To tell yourself that this is all uncertain is to deliberately ignore the judgement of the best economists both at home and overseas and the major economic institutions. The outlook for the NHS and other public services is therefore dire.
Yes, Brexit is likely to be a disaster – for the Conservatives. A Labour Party that supports the Article 50 Bill will have supported the will of the people, as expressed in the referendum. Labour will also have supported the amendments that would require the government to make Brexit as ‘soft’ as possible and it will not be Labour’s fault if those amendments are voted down by the Conservatives, who have the majority in the House of Commons. Labour will be able to argue, in future election campaigns, that it supported the economy and public services including the NHS, but the Tories did not.
The government’s position is full of contradictions. They are desperate to make trade deals with anyone, but are prepared to see a sharp fall in trade with the huge market that is our closest neighbour. They say that leaving the EU is to regain sovereignty, but every expert knows that the major gains from trade, particularly for the service orientated UK economy, come from reducing non-tariff barriers which inevitably compromise sovereignty (look at UK trade to the EU before and after we helped create the Single Market). Do we really want to take back control from Europe only to give it to Donald Trump?
Opposition parties are fully aware that the Conservative government’s position is contradictory, and having been stating and re-stating this for more than half a year now. That is why Labour’s amendments aim to stabilise the UK’s relationship with the Single Market. Everybody with a rational viewpoint knows that the ‘sovereignty’ argument was a dud – the UK never lost sovereignty to the EU.
The political implications of May’s strategy are more speculative, but initial signs are not good. May now finds herself unable to condemn the immigration policy of President Trump that overtly discriminates against Muslims including UK MPs, and which is the biggest gift to terrorists since Bush talked about a crusade. (At least when that happened Blair was quick to tell him to stop.) May has threatened to turn the UK into a tax haven if the EU do not meet our demands, once again without parliament having any say. All this makes her desire to help the left behind and the just managing into empty words that will become a sick joke. She sees reducing immigration as an absolute priority, which will further hurt business and feed growing UK xenophobia.
Again, Theresa May is facing a problem entirely of her own making. The rest of us – including members of her own party – are wholeheartedly opposed to President Trump’s miserable, mean-spirited and murderous Muslim ban, but Mrs May has painted herself into a corner from which she cannot do anything other than support his vindictive bigotry. That will be her problem at the next general election. Why should Labour, or any of the Opposition parties, help her out?
In summary: All the problems listed by Professor Wren-Lewis have been created by the Conservative government; all the viable solutions are being put forward by Labour and other Opposition parties and are likely to be voted down by the Tories for narrow party-political reasons, meaning there are no good reasons for the Opposition parties to change their plans.
Labour therefore has an opportunity to reap huge rewards by supporting the outcome of the referendum and should not change its position, thank you very much.
Source: mainly macro: Why voting for Article 50 may ruin an MP’s career
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