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Labour forces U-turn on Brexit debate as it sets government 170 questions on the terms of leaving the EU

Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer

Labour piled the pressure on the Tories over Brexit yesterday, winning the right to debate Article 50 from Theresa May while also submitting 170 questions to her government on leaving the EU. This represents a significant climbdown from the government’s previous position that there would be “no running commentary” on negotiations.

May accepted Labour’s case for a parliamentary debate on the terms on which she’ll trigger Article 50, though she stopped short of endorsing the call for a vote altogether. Emily Thornberry told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the opposition would not let ministers “go into a locked room and come out with some plan that they want to keep secret”.

Labour set out 170 questions on Brexit, one for every day until Article 50 is triggered in March. Labour also set out what they saw as the seven scenarios for Brexit:

(i) maintaining full membership of the Single Market, as at present;
(ii) negotiating UK terms for membership of the European Economic Area;
(iii) negotiating UK terms for membership of the European Free Trade Agreement;
(iv) negotiating a Customs union with the EU;
(v) negotiating a bespoke, bilateral free trade deal with the EU;
(vi) adopting a unilateral free trade policy with all trading partners; and
(vii) reverting to WTO rules for future trade arrangements, including the imposition of tariffs.”

The questions focus on which of these models the government has definitely ruled out, what its red lines are, and what the expected consequences of each ‘model’ of Brexit will be. The ploy received plaudits from some unexpected quarters, including Progress-backed MPs such as Gloria de Piero, who tweeted that it was, “Real opposition”, in a somewhat backhanded compliment.

Prominent Tory Brexiteer John Redwood MP dismissed the “silly questions”.

In yesterday’s parliamentary debate, seven former Tory ministers voiced their concerns over a ‘hard Brexit’, including former chancellor Ken Clarke, who condemned, “continued pronunciations of uncertainty that are holding things back very badly. The pound has devalued to an extent that would have caused a political crisis 30 years ago when I first came here, and not for the first time.”

Meanwhile Ed Miliband has continued his crusade against exiting the single market. Speaking at an event at the New Economics Foundation on Tuesday, the Guardian reported that Miliband said, “There was no sense that this was a small decision; this was a big decision and a big sense of change.” Continuing, he said, “Labour has an absolutely huge opportunity in my view, at the moment, and I don’t think we should be blind to that at all.”

One major twist could be delivered from the High Court, who hears the ‘People’s Challenge’ to Theresa May, a legal action which seeks a legal judgment on whether or not May has to have parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50. The court case begins today and will last two and a half days. A total of sixteen QCs will present evidence against the government.

Elsewhere, the pound continues to fall, now to a 168-year low. It hit 1.217 US dollars at one point yesterday, the lowest exchange rate since 1848.


  1. C MacMackin says:

    I scanned through the 170 questions (found here: All of the address things which we need to know about Brexit negotiations. However, some of them are framed in ways which suggest that Labour wants to keep some of the EU’s neoliberal policies. For example, their questions around transport seem to indicate that there is a desire to allow European companies to continue operating completely freely in Britain. Surely this would make renationalisation and building a sensible transport strategy more difficult? Similarly, there is a suggestion that there is a desire to continue with an open skies agreement, but such deregulatory measures are the opposite of what we need in the era of climate change. Another area of concern for me is a seeming desire to stick with the EU’s system for pharmaceuticals. I don’t object having a common regulator but am concerned about what the patent implications would be. Labour should be seeking to build a publicly owned pharmeceutical system capable of tackling threats such as antibiotic resistance. Would the European system be compatible with this? (It maye be–I don’t know–but these are the sorts of questions we need to be asking.) All in all, it would be nice if Labour could actually spell out what its vision for Brexit is rather than insinuating it through questions for the Conservatives and simply accusing them of having no answers.

    Additionally, it would be nice if someone could explain in depth what each of the seven potential trade relationships would entail for Britain. How much access would they provide to the single market? Would the UK still be bound by liberalisation directives? What about other regulations? Would there be the possibility to institute tarriffs for certain sectors, should it be judged neccessary for, e.g., economic development? What would be the consequences for the movement of capital?

    1. Karl Stewart says:

      You’re right to raise these questions CMac. There seems to be an almost ‘common-sense consensus’ starting to emerge around continuing membership of the ‘single market’, the implications of which haven’t been fully explained.

      I am a bit sceptical with regard to the single market issue, as the strongest support for it seems to be coming from businesses.

      My reason for voting to leave was to be able to move away from the EU’s imposed liberalisation and imposed competition regulations, so it’s important we know exactly what single market membership will mean for us from that perspective.

      1. John Penney says:

        Let’s be quite clear, staying in the Single Market, would impose the existing rabid neoliberalism enforcing agenda of the EU on the UK economy, as if the UK had never left . Remaining in the Single Market would impose all the sovereignty destroying strictures of neoliberal trade deals like TTIP and its Canadian variant, on the UK. Remaining in the Single Market would impose all the raft of “Competition Rules” on the UK, such as to rule out any nationalisation or industrial protection, or capital flow restriction or direction, measures that an incoming radical left government would need to impose .

        And of course that central plank of the entire neoliberal economic model, entirely unlimited labour supply, would continue to undermine wages and conditions collective bargaining power in the UK, as we slipped further and further down the slope to a low wage, low skill, “Uberised” precariat economy, a recently confirmed as a “good economic model” by the EU .

        The drive by Big Business and their creatures on the Labour Right to stay in the Single Market is simply a ruse to effectively stay within the entirely neoliberal economic straightjacket of the EU bureaucracy. All the “Hard Brexit” scaremongering, is just that – beyond a medium term economic dislocation effect, the UK, the 5th biggest economy in the world, will undoubtedly negotiate a tariff free trade relationship with the EU states. They sell more to the UK than the UK sells to them.

        The ability of a future radical Left UK government to implement a even mildly radical Let programme hinges absolutely on the UK NOT being trapped within the neoliberal straightjacket of the EU OR the Single Market.

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