Opposition must oppose

Written By: Denis MacShane
Published: July 29, 2017 Last modified: July 29, 2017

One of the puzzles of the Brexit debate is the absence of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Labour leaders go out of their way to explain that they have no differences with Mrs May and her Brexit ministers.

Many on the left wretch when the dreaded words ‘Tony Blair’ are mentioned, but who can disagree with his point that “Both main parties remain wedded to leaving the Single Market” and “a ‘Jobs First’ Brexit outside the Single Market is a contradiction in terms”?

Labour is making great play of opposing the Repeal-Withdrawal Bill, as every Labour MP should. But the easiest way to kill that bill is to make the case for staying in the Single Market and Customs Union while, if need be, being outside the EU, as several other European nations manage to do. That way all trade union social rights which are obligatory and enforceable in the European Court of Justice under existing EU rules would be maintained.

The EU27 would be delighted if Britain adopted much tougher rules on internal labour market management to boost local employment, bring in ID cards so that we know who is at work in Britain, start up effective apprenticeship training, use the rule that exempts state employment like the NHS from Freedom of Movement obligations to train and hire more UK nurses and doctors and other measures which are compatible with EU Treaty norms.

In June 2016 just 37 per cent of the total electorate voted to ‘Leave’ the EU. This is below previous thresholds for con­stitutional referendums. Yet no-one other than a few journal- ists or retired Whitehall Warriors like Lords Gus O’Donnell (former head of the Civil Service, Lord Nick McPherson (former head of the Treasury) and Lord John Kerr (former head of the FCO) speak out in public. The CBI is content with a lunch at Chevening and the City hires ex-Ministers to travel to Brussels rather than travelling to the regions of Britain to explain why Brexit will return the City to its pre-Thatcher era.

Just 1.8 per cent voted for UKIP on June 8 but it still feels as if fears of UKIP stalk the shadow cabinet and the constit­uency offices of many Labour MPs. Just 4.2 per cent of Labour Party members, according to a major survey just released, want the UK to leave the Single Market. Traditionally the duty of Her Majesty’s Opposition is to oppose. The current Labour leadership and shadow cabinet seem to see their duty as supporting Mrs May’s desire to leave the Single Market and even Customs Union. How long will that be tenable?

There is a remarkable slate of Labour MPs who have been elected Chairs of Commons Select Committees – Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh, Lillian Greenwood – just to name the women. Can one of them be the voice the nation is waiting for? Not to refight last year’s referendum but to say that a Brexit that does immense damage to the UK economy, to foreign investment and to jobs is not the right way forward.

Politics abhors a vacuum. At some stage someone has to emerge from the ranks of the main opposition party to say that the UKIP-style Brexit the government wants is unacceptable, unobtainable and unwanted by the majority of voters.

About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a former Europe Minister