The Guardian view on the Brexit debate: no scrutiny, no choice | Editorial

In a damning assessment of Wednesday’s token debate on Boris Johnson’s Brexit trade deal, the Hansard Society’s senior researcher dismissed it as “a farce.” As one of the most depressing and shambolic periods in British political history reaches a denouement, perhaps that should have come as no surprise.

MPs were allotted five hours to discuss the 1,246-page treaty, agreed last week, which completes Britain’s departure from the European Union. Such a derisory level of scrutiny, said Hansard’s Brigid Fowler, was “an abdication of parliament’s constitutional responsibilities.” Exuding insouciance, the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, quickly revealed the government’s contempt for such notions. The risibly short session, he told MPs, was merely the “icing on the Christmas cake that the prime minister delivered for the nation”. So much, then, for the restoration of parliamentary sovereignty, the lodestar that supposedly guided the Brexit project. In the absence of any alternative, bar a disastrous no-deal exit on New Year’s Day, the European Union (future relationship) bill was rushed through by a majority of 448. Cognisant of its myriad flaws, Mr Johnson had good grounds for wanting it to be waved through on the fly.

The prime minister cockily asserted that his deal was a triumph of “cakeism”, restoring full sovereignty to the United Kingdom while ensuring free access to European markets. It does nothing of the sort. Though Mr Johnson shamefully refuses to be honest about it, there will be burdensome and expensive new layers of bureaucracy for exporters to deal with. The treaty also plays to the strengths of the EU rather than the UK, prioritising the trade of goods and offering next to nothing to Britain’s powerful service sector, which constitutes 80% of the economy. National security is undermined by exclusion from crucial EU criminal databases.

Diminished freedoms to live and work in the EU encapsulate the human cost of a gratuitous limiting of horizons. And ominously for workers’ rights and the environment, the pro-Brexit zealots of the European Research Group have concluded that level playing field commitments in the treaty can be seen off by a “robust” government. On that basis, all but two ERG MPs signed up on the dotted line.

Far more controversially, so did most Labour MPs, who were under instruction to do so from their leader. Wednesday’s debate was something of an ordeal for Sir Keir Starmer, who played a major role in the battle for a second referendum on Brexit. Only one Labour MP joined the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the DUP in rejecting the government’s bill. But 36 abstained and three frontbenchers resigned.

The Labour rebels point out that Mr Johnson will gleefully exploit Sir Keir’s backing, compromising attempts to attack the deal’s consequences. But the Labour leader reluctantly chose this path in order to gain his party the space to renew itself. He was right to judge that Labour could not afford to be associated, however unfairly, with preferring “no deal” to Mr Johnson’s unsatisfactory one. At a deeper level, if Labour is to win back the crucial red wall constituencies which deserted the party at the last election, a clear signal was required to show that it accepted the result of the 2016 referendum. After four years of division, chaos and strategic failure on Brexit, Labour now has the chance to reshape the national conversation. Sir Keir’s leadership will be judged on how successfully he does that. As the old joke goes: “I wouldn’t start from here…”. But none of us, including the Labour leader, now have any choice in the matter.


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