On Brexit, the British Public Finally Turns on Would-Be Tyrant Theresa May


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Last week was a particularly disastrous week for Parliament, when a horribly large majority of MPs voted to let Theresa May, the Prime Minister, do what she wants regarding Britain’s exit from the EU — and what she wants, as she has made clear, is as “hard” a Brexit as possible — one in which, in order to exercise some spurious control over immigration, we are forced to abandon the single market and the customs union, which will be insanely damaging to our economy.

The MPs’ unprovoked capitulation, by 494 votes to 122, in the vote allowing May to trigger Article 50, which launches our departure from the EU, came despite three-quarters of MPs believing that we should stay in the EU, and despite the narrow victory in last June’s referendum, which, crucially, was only advisory, although everyone in a position of power and authority has since treated it as though it was somehow legally binding.

The MPs’ capitulation was also disgraceful because, following the referendum, a handful of brave individuals engaged in a court battle to prevent Theresa May from behaving like a tyrant, and undertaking our departure from the EU without consulting Parliament. Both the High Court and the Supreme Court pointed out that sovereignty in the UK resides in Parliament, and not just in the hands of the Prime Minister, and that Parliament would have to be consulted.

Leave voters resented this intrusion of reality into their fantasy world, and the judges were subjected to widespread abuse for pointing out what Leave voters were supposed to have wanted all along (as they revealed that what they really want is a Tory dictator), but, shameful as this was, it was overshadowed by MPs’ craven refusal to accept their sovereignty, as they bowed down before Theresa May and gave her absolutely everything she wanted.

At the weekend, a handful of commentators expressed their dismay at this turn of events — although nowhere near enough, demonstrating the extent to which our mainstream media is plagued by a persistent right-wing bias. Two columns of note were in the Observer — ‘Parliament has diminished itself at this turning point in our history’ by Andrew Rawnsley, and ‘What use is sovereignty when MPs deny their conscience over Brexit?’ by William Keegan.

The only good news, however, came via a poll “conducted by ICM for the online campaigning organisation Avaaz on the day the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to trigger article 50,” as the Guardian described it, which revealed that “[a] clear majority of the British public oppose Theresa May’s uncompromising Brexit negotiating position and are not prepared for the UK to crash out of the EU if the prime minister cannot negotiate a reasonable exit deal.”

In a result described as “a sign that public support for the government’s push for a hard Brexit is increasingly precarious,” just 35% of those who responded to the polling “said they backed Britain leaving the EU without an agreement with other states.” If no agreement is reached, the UK would have to rely on World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs, and, as the Guardian explained, MPs and business leaders have said that this will “devastate the economy.”

In contrast, in what was described as “a welcome boost for soft Brexit campaigners,” over half of those surveyed (54%) “backed either extending negotiations if a satisfactory deal could not be reached, or halting the process altogether while the public was consulted for a second time.”

34% said Theresa May “should continue negotiating” if a satisfactory deal could not be reached, while an addition 20% “backed halting the process pending a second referendum on the terms of the deal.”

Those backing a second referendum include the Liberal Democrats and “a cross-party group of MPs including the Labour MPs David Lammy, Heidi Alexander and Ben Bradshaw, as well as the Green Party leader, Caroline Lucas.”

Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesman, said the poll findings “proved the government’s position was indefensible.” He said, “Our best hope of stopping a ruinous hard Brexit that nobody voted for and few want is if the public rally round to fight it, as Brexit grows more unpopular. That means uniting many who voted leave but now want to avoid the economic catastrophe of quitting the single market, and who want to protect those European citizens who contribute so much to Britain’s economy and society.”

Bert Wander, Avaaz’s campaign director, said the results “showed May was at odds with the public over Brexit, and called for the House of Lords to ensure that Britons had the right to force May to continue negotiating.” As he pointed out, “Two-thirds of the public don’t want Theresa May dangling us over the Brexit cliff without a safety net and the Lords can intervene and save us from that fate. We need the right to send May back to Brussels if all she brings us is a bad deal for Britain.”

Yesterday, there was further cause for hope when Dick Newby, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, said that he was “confident that enough peers would back amendments on issues such as the rights of EU citizens [to stay in the UK] and parliamentary votes on the final Brexit deal to defeat the government and force a rethink.”

This is good news, because, last week, when MPs voted overwhelmingly for Theresa May to trigger Brexit, they failed to secure a single amendment, leaving EU citizens in the UK facing a disgracefully uncertain future as “bargaining chips.” Their inability to secure any amendments also mean that their entire involvement in the Brexit negotiations is dependent upon the whims of the Prime Minister, who, as is becoming increasingly obvious, has no interest whatsoever in MPs’ involvement.

Newby said that he “expected around 230 Labour and Lib Dem peers to back an amendment on EU citizens, as well as most of the crossbenchers and at least two Tory peers,” and he added that, because some Tory peers are expected to abstain, the numbers should be sufficient to “easily defeat the government.”

He added, “There are a lot of members of the group for whom Europe is the big thing that has motivated them in politics,” and also admitted, “We were complacent, truth be told. But things have turned and people on our side feel very strongly about it.” He also said all peers “had been told to cancel leave or prior engagements.”

Labour peers have tabled “eight amendments on issues from EU nationals to quarterly reporting to parliament about the Brexit process” (similar to the thwarted amendments in the House of Commons), but with some important additions — former cabinet minister Peter Hain, for example, “has tabled several amendments, including one on the Northern Irish border, which Newby said was gaining traction,” as it deserves to, and another backed by crossbench peer Lord Pannick QC, who opposed the government in the Supreme Court over the need for parliamentary approval of the triggering of article 50. Pannick’s amendment “would require a parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal, specifying that it should take place before any deal is approved by the European commission or parliament.”

Labour peers have, apparently, promised not to try to derail Theresa May’s plan to trigger Article 50 by the end of March, but Newby said that Labour peers “may be prepared to be more openly pro-European than Labour MPs because they did not have to answer to constituencies.”

As he explained, “What’s the point? If you’re 65 and a Labour peer and been pro-European all your life, why just sit on your hands? A lot of them are taking it into their own hands, because I talk to a lot of them.”

He also said of the Labour peers in general, “What have they got to lose? There are very many strong Europeans in the Labour party. They all know Corbyn is taking the Labour party down a destructive path, they are all beside themselves.”

Newby also addressed the threat by an unnamed government source, who said, “If the Lords don’t want to face an overwhelming public call to be abolished they must get on and protect democracy and pass this bill.” He called it an empty threat, and explained, “There is zero capacity in Whitehall to worry about House of Lords reform, it’s ludicrous to even contemplate it.”

As the Lords continue to discuss Brexit, the only other news of note since last week’s vote is a report by a new thinktank, Global Future, which suggests, damningly, that Brexit’s major aim — to return control of our borders — will not work, and will only lead to a “vanishingly small reduction” in the numbers of  immigrants. I have been staying this all along — and, of course, what is also overlooked by pro-leave evangelists is the extent to which immigrants are vital to the UK economy and their contribution is irreplaceable.

Global Future’s report “shows total net immigration, which at the latest official estimate was 335,000 in the year to June 2016, could be expected to fall by no more than 15%, to 285,000 a year,” as the Guardian described it, adding, that future free trade deals with non-EU countries suggest that “even this reduction could be wiped out.”

This was acknowledged last week by Liam Fox, the international trade minister, who accepted that “he did not know of any new free trade deal that did not also include liberalisation of migration rules between the two countries signing such agreements.” As the Guardian noted, “Australia and India have already indicated they will seek preferential access for their workers as part of a free trade deal,” despite Theresa May’s evident racism on a recent trip to India, when she made it clear how much she dislikes allowing any immigrants into the UK, unless, of course, they are wealthy.

The Global Future report concludes that, “While ending freedom of movement is psychologically appealing to those who want a sense of control of our borders, the reality is such a move would create more the illusion of control. People looking for substantial reductions are likely to be disappointed with the eventual figure of 50,000 or less.”

Its director, Gurnek Bains, added, “The extent to which this impact is worth the myriad of economic and political problems that pulling out of free movement would create needs to be reflected upon. In addition, promising more than can be delivered on migration risks creating a firestorm in the future.”

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, who backed the findings of the report, said, “In return for this self-inflicted wound it is unlikely that the Conservative Brexit government will be able to deliver its promise of dramatically reduced immigration.”

My hope is that all of these blows to the government’s “hard Brexit” plans are inching us closer to where we need to end up — staying in the EU because leaving and engaging in the single biggest act of economic suicide in our lifetimes is too great  price to pay — but I’m not holding my breath. This is going to be a long struggle, because those of us who want to stay in the EU are up against spectacularly delusional nationalists, whose self-regard is so colossal that they are unable to comprehend how deluded they are.

Note: For further information about Brexit, please read Ian Dunt’s excellent article for Politics.co.uk, ‘Everything you need to know about Theresa May’s Article 50 nightmare in five minutes.’ Dunt is the author of the invaluable book, Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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15 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, revisiting the ongoing disaster that is #Brexit, after last week’s pathetic capitulation by MPs to Prime Minister Theresa May, who had wanted to exclude them from all negotiations. 80% of MPs voted to allow May to trigger Brexit, even though 75% of MPs oppose it. However, now, for the first time, a poll has shown a majority of people (54%) opposed to the “hard Brexit” that May wants, urging her to continue negotiations or hold a second referendum if no deal is reached which would mean us crashing out of the EU and relying on WTO rules with disastrous consequences for the economy. Also included: a report on planned amendments to the Brexit bill in the House of Lords, protecting EU citizens in the UK (who are being treated by the government as “bargaining chips”) and Parliament’s right to vote on final deal. I’m glad to see the tide turning, but I still believe that the only non-suicidal route for the UK is to refuse to leave the EU and to respectfully refuse to implement the result of a spectacularly ill-advised referendum whose outcome was only advisory, but which has been treated ever since as though it was somehow legally binding.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    The British government using EU nationals living in the UK as “bargaining chips” is not going down well with European Parliament, whose legal affairs committee has stated that it will be up to individual member states to decide whether UK citizens can carry on living in their countries after 2019, adding, “The fact that it appears to be particularly difficult for foreign nationals, even if married to UK nationals or born in the UK, to acquire permanent residence status or British nationality may colour member states’ approach to this matter.”
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/13/uk-treatment-of-eu-nationals-could-lead-to-backlash-against-britons-living-in-the-eu

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    On the difficulties facing EU citizens in the UK, the Guardian notes that “EU nationals say that to obtain permanent residency cards they have to complete an 85-page form requiring huge files of documentation, including P60s for five years, historical utility bills and a diary of all the occasions they have left the country since settling in the UK. Some have received letters inviting them to prepare to leave the country after failing to tick a box on a form.”
    See the case of Sam Schwarzkopf, a German neuroscientist living in the UK whose permanent residence application was rejected for an insignificant reason, and he was told he ‘should now make preparations to leave’: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/dec/29/german-neuroscientist-told-to-leave-uk-residency-application-rejected-monique-hawkins

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Also see the case of Monique Hawkins, a Dutch woman who has lived in the UK for 24 years, and has two children with her British husband, who was “told by the Home Office that she should make arrangements to leave the country after she applied for citizenship after the EU referendum”: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/dec/28/dutch-woman-with-two-british-children-told-to-leave-uk-after-24-years

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s the case of Jet Cooper, a Dutch woman who has lived with her British husband in Devon for 30 years. Her husband dis seriously ill, but she has been told that she “may not be eligible to remain in the country because she had not taken out private health insurance and because she may not have earned sufficient revenue in the years during which she freelanced”: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/14/dutchwoman-resident-in-uk-for-30-years-may-have-to-leave-after-brexit

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    The New Statesman notes that, “Until the government writes a new immigration law based on negotiations with member states, it’s hard to say” what will happen to the 2.8m EU nationals in the UK, adding, however, that “it would take around 140 years to process EU nationals using the existing permanent residence system, so the status quo is not practical.” I am very sorry to hear about the uncertainties facing those living and working here from other countries, and it is one of the many aspects of Brexit that, as a British citizen, I find a profound shame: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2017/02/what-will-happen-eu-nationals-after-brexit

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Brian Barlow wrote:

    There has already been a referendum and the people decided to leave the EU. There was no third option for a soft ‘exit’.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    There was no definition as to what was meant by Brexit either, Brian, so please don’t pretend that it was a simple binary choice. There was no discussion of how much it should cost, what should be our position regarding the single market and the customs union, what we should do if it turns out that it is impossible to control immigration, and what we should do if it turns out that leaving will be so ruinously expensive that it will be an act of economic suicide, to name just a few topics not mentioned in that simplistic yes/no vote.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    And for a German perspective, here, in Deutsche Welle, is ‘Brexit hate crime and uncertainty leave Brits and EU citizens in limbo,’ which looks in part at the uncertainties faced by a British-German couple and their young son: http://www.dw.com/en/brexit-hate-crime-and-uncertainty-leave-brits-and-eu-citizens-in-limbo/a-37561860

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s the Guardian on Tony Blair, after he called for the urgent development of an anti-Brexit movement:

    His case is that Britain voted to leave the European Union without an account of what that would involve in practice. As the terms of separation become clear – if it appears that the government is wedded to a ruinous version of Brexit – it is reasonable to argue for a different course.

    This is not a call to overturn the verdict of the people in last year’s referendum. It is a call to those who doubted the wisdom of that verdict to raise their political game, to find new arguments and new strategies fit for the post-referendum context. Context is everything. The path of severe rupture from the EU chosen by Theresa May was not the only possible interpretation of the referendum mandate. It is a road down which the prime minister has been steered by the most radical fringe of her party, bulldozing moderate opinion in Conservative ranks.

    The Labour party’s acquiescence to Mrs May’s timetable articulates chaos and weakness in Jeremy Corbyn’s office more than coherent opposition strategy. In other words, the Brexit trajectory that Britain now faces is an accident of weak leadership on both sides. Other trajectories are available. To assert that fact is not undemocratic. The deeper offence against democracy comes from those Europhobic ultras who try to stifle every murmur of dissent with demagogic nationalism – as if reasonable Brexit-scepticism is no better than treason.

    See: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/17/the-guardian-view-on-tony-blairs-brexit-speech-the-message-not-the-messenger

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Chazz Pink wrote:

    I’m someone who is strongly opposed to Brexit, but Blair’s timing shows what is wrong. One week later and it wouldn’t have risked damaging the by-elections.

    “It is not a stretch to say that giving an anti-Brexit speech a few days before Labour fight UKIP in one of the tightest by-elections in years is nothing short of sabotage. After all, why would Tony Blair want Jeremy Corbyn to storm to victory in these two by-elections? It would consolidate Corbyn’s leadership and by implication damage any attempt from the Progress faction to trigger another leadership contest. One must be sceptical of Blair’s timing. He could have given his anti-Brexit speech at any time – the process of leaving the European Union is going to take years. Instead, he chose the perfect time to inflict maximum damage on Labour and Jeremy Corbyn – ahead of marginal seats that could make or break the Corbyn project.”


  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Chazz – and that’s on top of his permanent toxicity. Yes, he can talk the talk, yes, he won three elections, but he’s a war criminal, he presided over the transformation of the UK into a country where both major parties only measured value via greed, and yet he and others like him – the centre – now constitute most of my so-called allies, and yet politically I don’t generally agree with them on anything else at all. Brexit has fractured the country, and 16 million of us are largely voiceless. Where are the other voices that aren’t Tony Blair, please?

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Chazz Pink wrote:

    Now we await to see what amendments the Lords (where Labour together with Libdem can outvote the Tories at present) will add before it goes back to Parliament to either accept or reject them. The first of the amendments could be hard for parliament to reject.
    My biggest hope lies with the tabled amendment: “Guaranteeing the UK Parliament will vote on the final deal before the European Parliament (something the Government conceded in the Commons, but did not put into legislation)”

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Chazz Pink wrote:

    Apart from the House of Lords, the only hope I see is if over the two or so years it will take to negotiate a Brexit, public opinion changes substantially enough to make a 2nd referendum a popular move, or it becomes accepted that a hard brexit is not what was voted for.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, Chazz. As the Guardian reported, “The changes most likely to pass in the next couple of weeks are amendments guaranteeing EU nationals rights in the UK and a more meaningful vote at the end of negotiations, but sources in the Lords said the government was applying intense pressure on crossbenchers to back down.” But bloody Theresa May actually sat in on the debate today to try and intimidate the Lords. She has such contempt for dissent.
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/feb/20/theresa-may-watches-house-of-lords-article-50-bill-debate-begins
    I think you’re right about the need for there to be increased disillusion in the next two years leading to a second referendum or a refusal by a majority to accept a “hard” Brexit. I certainly hope so.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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