At some point in December, Boris Johnson will return from Brussels – or rather, leave the Zoom meeting where the Brexit negotiations are taking place – with an announcement. After months of bluster and back-and-forth, it now seems likely that a deal of some sort will be reached, and that parliament will be asked to endorse it.
We do not know exactly what the deal will look like, though we can be sure that it will be a bare bones one. Any deal brought back to parliament by Johnson will be designed to appease the hardest of Brexiteers. It will prevent a no-deal cliff edge as we exit the transition period, but will not, in the long run, mean guarantees for workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants’ rights and much of the other regulation we derive from EU law.
With the government majority so hefty, it would take a big rebellion to defeat it, and while it may be true that a handful of hardline Tories are planning to vote down the deal in the hope of creating a no-deal situation, there is nothing on the scale that would be needed for a repeat of previous upsets. There are not dozens of Tory backbenchers briefing that they will break the whip. No cabinet minister is rumoured to be considering their position.
And so the question of what Labour does with its votes is of symbolic, rather than immediately practical, significance. But that does not mean that it does not matter.
While the detail of the deal is as yet opaque, its broader aims have been clear ever since the time of the EU referendum. Brexit is not a policy but a project, aimed at enabling the biggest deregulation of the UK economy in our history. Cutting “EU red tape” was always about getting rid of things like rights for agency workers, maternity rights, health and safety protections, food standards and of environmental protections, 80 per cent of which currently come from the EU.
Much of the project will be delivered as an attachment to trade deals with countries like the US, which will downgrade our food standards and open up the NHS to entrenched privatisation. Alongside this will go a vicious anti-migrant politics, a conscious attempt to blame foreigners for falling living standards caused by austerity, and the biggest expansion in border controls in our lifetimes.
By the time of the 2024 general election, the Brexit project ought to be deeply unpopular. The government will no doubt try to blame its economic fallout on Covid, but a good opposition will easily be able to point out that the UK’s loss of jobs and income is unique and caused by our rupture with the world’s biggest trading bloc. A good opposition will also benefit from the fact that economic deregulation and a toxic US trade deal are unpopular policies. But in order to build a narrative around these things, Labour needs to be consistent and loud.
The prospect of Labour voting for the Tories’ Brexit deal is therefore something that should fill all of its supporters with dread, if only as a matter of electoral self-preservation. At the very moment that Labour needs to be drawing itself up to its fullest height, warning about the disaster that awaits, and setting out a radical alternative for post-Brexit Britain, Keir Starmer is apparently preparing to announce his abject surrender before walking through the government lobbies mumbling something about responsible opposition and the “national interest”.
Just as important is the signal being sent to Labour’s supporters. The whole purpose of voting for the deal is that doing so will help to exorcise Labour’s perceived status as a “party of Remain” (Starmer’s words, not mine), but it is wrong-headed to give ground to the false idea that Labour lost on these grounds. Doing so will alienate many of the progressive voters that Labour needs to win back and lead to a series of other, nastier compromises on immigration and nationalism. As a friend of mine said to me recently, I get that Remain versus Leave is over, but when the party’s finished there’s a difference between letting yourself out the back door and throwing yourself off the roof.
If you oppose something, it is usually best to vote against it. This might come as a shocking revelation to the Labour leadership that recently whipped its MPs to abstain on legislation that granted immunity to torturers and empowered the security state to spy on political dissidents. The Tories’ Brexit agenda is not a moment that can be got “through”, “beyond”, “round” or “past”; it is a project that must be met with scrutiny and opposition.
The country is not crying out for a few talking points demonstrating Labour’s respectability in lieu of a political vision; it wants an insurgent opposition that can hold the government to account for its catastrophic handling of Covid and the coming disaster of Brexit.
If Starmer wants to send a signal, it should be one of opposition, not surrender.