Two contributors battle it outby Ed Miliband, Michael Gove / November 11, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
The High Court has ruled that Theresa May cannot commence Britain’s exit from the EU without the assent of MPs. The government wants a free hand over the timing and the negotiating terms, arguing that the referendum provides all the authority it needs. The Supreme Court will hear its appeal in December.
Ed Miliband is former Leader of the Opposition and Labour MP for Doncaster North
Dear Michael, your conviction that we should leave the European Union was rooted in a belief in the sovereignty of our parliament as the rightful expression of the sovereignty of the people. I respect this as a sincere and long-held conviction. There is a clear mandate for Brexit from the referendum. I know you are too intelligent to want to play the man not the ball but to avoid doubt, I am not seeking to reverse the result. We are leaving the EU.
But there was only one question on the ballot paper: Should we remain in or leave the EU? There was no opportunity to opt for a particular form of Brexit. Nor was there a mandate from the Conservative 2015 manifesto either.
That is why it is essential that the government gets a mandate from parliament for its negotiating plan before the commencement of the negotiations. Given your convictions, I hope you would agree that it would be quite wrong to deny parliament a guiding role in the negotiations supposedly designed to return power to it.
This is not simply an argument about parliamentary process. The government says it wants a national consensus but that can only be built if both those who voted “Leave” and “Remain” are taken with it on the journey to our new destination as a country. That requires openness about the government’s strategy, its plan and how it will overcome the difficult trade-offs. It also requires a mandate. The alternative is a recipe for a still-divided country.
There are huge and important choices to be made about Brexit with profound implications for our economy and place in the world for decades ahead. I hope you will support my desire for parliament’s voice to be heard because it is essential for the sovereignty you say you want to see and for our country’s national interest.
Michael Gove is Conservative MP for Surrey Heath and a member of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee
Dear Ed, I’m delighted that you are so clear and unequivocal in your belief that we should respect the result of the referendum. You argued the case to “Remain” with passion and flair. I agree parliament has a critical role to play in helping to make our departure a success. That’s why I’m so pleased to be on the Select Committee scrutinising the process. There’s a lot to chew over, which is why I think it’s helpful to be clear about some issues which don’t need revisiting.
During the campaign there was much we disagreed about. But one thing was common currency for both sides. Any decision to leave would mean leaving the single market. I made the point—repeatedly—in speeches and interviews that a “Leave” vote would mean being outside the single market because that was the only way we could control our borders, our laws and our money. Taking back control of these was the central argument we made throughout and it clearly resonated.
Stronger In believed this commitment was a “gaffe” on the part of the “Leave” campaign and argued, with perhaps less than total faith in the British people, that leaving the single market would turn the UK into Albania. Your colleague and my old friend Peter Mandelson reinforced the point. He said a vote to leave would mean an end to membership of the single market: “This is the cold reality of Brexit that the British people must face,” he was honest enough to affirm.
To ensure that we can proceed on the basis of consensus would you agree that, whatever else the Commons decides, we should honour the vote to take back control of our borders, money and laws and leave the single market?
You appear to have (not) answered my question with a question. I will come to yours but please don’t forget to answer mine: Are you in favour of parliament having a vote on the negotiating plan that the PM takes to Brussels?
Your response was notable because it seemed to claim that there really was some grand, coherent, worked-out plan for Brexit. That would really be quite amusing if the country’s fate didn’t hang on it. I am bound to ask: what happened to the plan?
The “Leave” campaign didn’t speak with one voice. Daniel Hannan, the godfather of “Leave,” wanted an arrangement like Norway—in the single market. So did Owen Paterson and Arron Banks, who was in charge of one of the “Leave” campaigns. David Davis, now in charge of Brexit, advocated membership of the customs union until quite recently.
And your ex-friend Boris Johnson wrote the day after the referendum that he wanted “A Brexit where British people will still be able to go and work in the EU… a Brexit where there continues to be free trade…”
Could you explain, with clear evidence, how that freedom to trade, without penalty, in goods and services can be delivered without membership of the single market or something very close to it? I certainly don’t think we should give up on our ability to operate within the single market without answers to these basic questions.
I understand now that your tactic is to claim a mandate so we can have your vision of Brexit, not anyone else’s. But I am afraid there was only one question on the ballot and one slogan on the bus: “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.” I agree we should honour promises made on resources. Can you let me know what information you have on the delivery of this?
I fear the reason you don’t want to answer my question on the parliamentary vote is that you know you won’t get the answer you want which is for a hard Brexit. But as the Chancellor Philip Hammond recently said “The British people did not vote to… become poorer.” I agree. They didn’t vote for it and parliament won’t support it.
Thanks for the welcome clarity. You use the phrase “hard Brexit,” a curious form of words which seems designed to make a liberation sound like a punishment. But it makes your stance clear. You don’t want to leave the single market.
That’s fine as a personal preference but it runs counter to the clearly expressed will of the people. Staying in the single market would mean we were still subject to European law and the rulings of European judges. It would also mean we had not taken back control of our borders and were still liable to pay contributions to the EU. I’m not sure the 69 per cent of people in your constituency of Doncaster North who voted “Leave” would think such an outcome respected the result.
Indeed I suspect most people would see your position as the worst of both worlds—accepting all the aspects of EU membership we voted against, while foregoing our ability to influence the rules as a member. Parliament voted—by 6 to 1—to hold a referendum. And parliament’s legitimacy comes from the ballot box. We can’t overturn the clearly articulated views of the majority without undermining the ground on which we stand.
Leaving the single market isn’t just the right thing democratically, though, it’s also the right thing economically. Outside it we can keep workers’ protections but get rid of job-destroying regulations, forge new trade deals more quickly with other countries and maintain the fullest possible access to European markets. Outside it there are a huge range of attractive options for us as there are a wide range of sovereign nations which have free trade deals with the EU.
And we’re bound to get a better deal than anyone else. The first reason is simple—the EU sells more to us than we sell to them so tariff-free trade is in their interests. The second is also straightforward—the EU’s current round of trade deals involve other nations adjusting to accept EU standards when selling into EU countries. We’ve already adjusted, so we can move very quickly to seal any new deal. And the third reason is one any politician can understand. I can’t imagine a German Chancellor wanting to make car workers redundant or a French President determined to make farmers poorer.
I’m committed to the fullest possible Commons scrutiny of the government’s actions, and determined to hold them to account. But what I expect of the government is respect for the result. What I fear you want is a vote to overturn it.
Contrary to what you say, polls of the public show that the British people would prefer, by large majorities, an outcome that saw us staying in the single market. That’s because they are worried about losing the jobs and benefits that come from barrier-free trade in goods and services.
Intriguingly, you say you want “the fullest possible access to European markets.”
I agree. We have that now—it’s called being in the single market and customs union. Can you explain how, outside these arrangements, we can get all the benefits without any of the obligations? When you answer please try and leave behind the campaign bluster. Airily saying, “we’re bound to get a better deal than anyone else” just doesn’t cut it.
You imply you want to be completely out of the customs union but I fear that would mean substantial non-tariff barriers to our trade in goods. You also say there must be no role for the European Court of Justice. This is somewhat at odds with the government’s emerging position. It has just done a deal with Nissan which promises “no bureaucratic impediments” for the car industry. That sounds very much like being in the customs union, at least for the automotive sector. And membership of it would also mean a role for the European Court. The reality is that they are waking up to the realities of the rocky, complex road that lies ahead. There will be trade-offs and difficult dilemmas and pretending otherwise does the whole debate a disservice.
Finally, let me say that I have enjoyed the chance to debate all this with you. I have a great idea. Why don’t we take this into parliament and then we can also have a vote!
I’ve also enjoyed our debate. I hope we have many others. But while you’ve been clear about a lot I’m still not sure what you really want a vote on. If you want one on whether or not to trigger Article 50, that’s a straight choice on whether or not to respect the referendum result. I can’t imagine you’d want to vote to ignore your constituents and keep us in the EU.
If, as you imply, you want to vote so we can stay in the single market then you’re now advocating a course you once decried. In March 2014 you said that if we left the EU but stayed in the single market, “it would be under terms and rules dictated by others. That would be bad for Britain.” Indeed, earlier this year, you underlined the point that membership of the single market means no effective control of our borders when you said that, “the experience of Norway shows you end up being subject to free movement anyway—but having no say over the rules.”
I take your point about polls, but they were not a very reliable guide to the referendum result. And I also appreciate you’re pessimistic about Britain getting a good deal and flourishing in the years ahead. But pessimism about Britain’s ability to succeed as a self-governing nation—or “Project Fear” as it became known—was rejected by a majority on 23rd June. They chose hope, voted for self-government and took back control. It was a great progressive moment. I hope, when we both have the chance to reflect in the future, that we will feel, as British politicians have had cause to so often in our history, proud of our fellow citizens’ faith in their country.
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