Sunday, 19 February 2017

Brexitwatch: Letter to a LibDem lord


It's good to write to members of Parliament to complain or cajole, but sometimes it's good just to say 'thank you'.

I am grateful to the Liberal Democrats for being the only major party in England to oppose Brexit, so I wrote the letter below to their leader in the House of Lords, Lord Newby. This week the Lords will have probably the last chance to give Parliament a meaningful role in the Brexit negotiations when they consider Theresa May's back-of-an-envelope bill on triggering Article 50.

Dear Lord Newby,
I am grateful for all the Liberal Democrats' efforts in trying to prevent the worst excesses of Brexit. I hope you will keep up the good work in the Lords over the next couple of weeks.
I was deeply disappointed in the performance of the Commons - a point I have made forcefully on a number of occasions to my MP, who happens to be Sir Keir Starmer.
I have also written to the Labour leader in the Lords, Baroness Smith and to Baroness Wheatcroft on the Tory benches. If you have any suggestions about other peers I might write to, I would welcome them.
The points I have made were as follows. The referendum result does not represent the 'will of the people'. The vote was advisory only. If Parliament had wanted to make it binding, it could have done, but it chose not to. Nor is there any moral obligation to obey a result that was won by what the Leave campaign now admits was lies and deception, and yet which was still decided by only a tiny majority among a gerrymandered electorate.
So those members of Parliament who support Brexit are doing so out of choice and they will share in the responsibility for its consequences.
It is the duty of members of Parliament to act in the national interest. That requires the blocking of Brexit, The best option, therefore, is rejection of the A50 trigger.
If that cannot be achieved, it is vital that the Lords pass MEANINGFUL amendments, and if those amendments cannot be passed, then the Lords should reject the bill. 
MPs talked about three concessions they said they had won from the government:
1. A White Paper
2. Regular reports to Parliament on the negotiations
3. A vote for Parliament on the final terms.
In my view, these 'concessions' are meaningless.
The White Paper is so vague and uncosted that it constitutes an insult to Parliament.
Unless MPs suddenly discover some backbone, the regular reports will just be the Brexiters' usual mixture of empty slogans and wishful thinking.
As for the final vote, the government is saying it will still be 'take whatever terms Theresa May has agreed however bad they are' or leave without any agreement, which will be even worse.
So at the very least, the Lords need to pass the following amendments:
1. The government must keep us full members of the Single Market. Theresa May and every other Conservative MP was elected on this promise, and throughout the referendum campaign, Leave campaigners were falling over themselves to say they did not wish to leave it.
2. When Theresa May has completed her negotiations, she must come to Parliament for approval of the proposed settlement. If it is rejected by Parliament, the UK will remain a member of the EU.
3. To be valid, any final agreement must win the approval of the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies. Until this is given, the UK remains a member of the EU.
 Good luck!
John Withington

Friday, 17 February 2017

Brexitwatch: Letter to a Lady


On February 14, I posted a letter I had sent to Labour's leader in the House of Lords, Baroness Smith, hoping to persuade her to fight for meaningful amendments to the government's bill authorising Theresa May to trigger Article 50.

I have now also written to a Conservative peer, Baroness Wheatcroft, who has spoken eloquently about the need to limit the damage from Brexit. This is my letter:

Dear Baroness Wheatcroft,
I trust we will not see the miserable weak-kneed capitulation we witnessed in the Commons on this measure being repeated in the Lords. Most members of Parliament know Brexti will seriously damage our country, and MP after MP said so. Then most of those same MPs trooped through the lobby to give Theresa May a blank cheque, failing to pass a single amendment to her back-of-an-envelope bill which promises the most extreme form of Brexit.
MPs do not seem to realise what a devastating blow they have delivered to Parliamentary democracy. Gina Miller risked her life to give them a say in the most important decision this country has had to take in decades, because they did not have the courage to demand it for themselves. And then they were too cowardly to grab the lifeline Ms Miller had thrown them.
Even among the Leave campaigners, no one seems any longer to argue that there will be any tangible benefits from Brexit, and the only argument advanced is that it is the 'will of the people'.
I hope you agree with me that this is completely bogus. The referendum was advisory only. If Parliament had wanted to make it binding, it could have done, but it chose not to. Nor is there any moral obligation to obey a result that was won by what the Leave campaign now admits was lies and deception, and yet which was still decided by only a tiny majority among a gerrymandered electorate.
So those members of Parliament who support Brexit are doing so out of choice and they will share in the responsibility for its consequences.
It is the duty of members of Parliament to act in the national interest. That requires the blocking of Brexit, The best option, therefore, is rejection of the A50 trigger.
If that cannot be achieved, it is vital that the Lords pass MEANINGFUL amendments, and if those amendments cannot be passed, then the Lords should reject the bill. 
MPs talked about three concessions they said they had won from the government:
1. A White Paper
2. Regular reports to Parliament on the negotiations
3. A vote for Parliament on the final terms.
In my view, these 'concessions' are meaningless.
The White Paper is so vague and uncosted that it constitutes an insult to Parliament.
Unless MPs suddenly discover some backbone, the regular reports will just be the Brexiters' usual mixture of empty slogans and wishful thinking.
As for the final vote, the government is saying it will still be 'take whatever terms Theresa May has agreed however bad they are' or leave without any agreement which will be even worse.
So at the very least, the Lords need to pass the following amendments:
1. The government must keep us full members of the Single Market. Theresa May and every other Conservative MP was elected on this promise, and throughout the referendum campaign, Leave campaigners were falling over themselves to say they did not wish to leave it.
2. When Theresa May has completed her negotiations, she must come to Parliament for approval of the proposed settlement. If it is rejected by Parliament, the UK will remain a member of the EU.
3. To be valid, any final agreement must win the approval of the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies. Until this is given, the UK remains a member of the EU.
Even if you accept the 'will of the people' argument, the only thing the 'people' voted for was to leave the EU. Theresa May has NO MANDATE for taking us out of the Single Market, the customs union, ending freedom of movement etc etc. Indeed after a narrowly decided vote, her decision to go for the most extreme form of Brexit and completely ignore the 16 million or more people who voted to remain in the EU is a gross betrayal of the British people.
And it is not just membership of the EU that is at stake, though that is serious enough. Elements among the Brexiters plainly wish to destroy democracy in our country, trying to shout down anyone who disagrees with them as an 'enemy of the people'. For the moment, they can be beaten, but if Parliament keeps on caving in to their bullying, a time will come when they cannot be.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Brexitwatch: Letter to a Lord



With the Labour 'opposition' supporting the Tories and UKIP and nodding Article 50 through in the House of Commons, the action now switches to the House of Lords, who could reject the bill authorising Theresa May to trigger A50, or pass significant amendments. (MPs in the Commons rejected every proposed amendment.)

The pro-EU Liberal Democrats are committed to amending the bill, but will Labour cave in once again?  This is the letter I have written to Labour's leader in the Lords, Baroness Smith of Basildon.

Dear Baroness Smith,
I trust we will not see the miserable weak-kneed capitulation of Labour members in the Commons repeated in the Lords. I have had considerable correspondence with my MP, who happens to be Sir Keir Starmer, and he is well aware of my dissatisfaction at Labour's performance and that I reject the arguments he has offered in its defence.
In particular, I reject the whole bogus 'will of the people' argument - increasingly the only one made in favour of Brexit. Even the Leave side have virtually given up pretending that leaving the EU will benefit the UK in any tangible way - hardly surprising as there is no evidence of any kind that it will, and reams of evidence that it will do serious damage.
Sir Keir claims that the referendum result is binding. It is not. If Parliament had wanted the result to be binding they would have made it so. They chose not to. So anyone who votes to trigger Article 50 is making a choice, and they will share in the responsibility for the consequences.
It is the duty of members of Parliament to act in the national interest. That requires the blocking of Brexit, which, as Labour rightly said during the referendum campaign (though the quality and enthusiasm of its saying might well be questioned), will seriously damage the British people. This is the time to put country before party, whatever Jeremy Corbyn may say.
The best option, therefore, is rejection of the A50 trigger.
If that cannot be achieved, it is vital that the Lords pass MEANINGFUL amendments. And please do not repeat Jeremy Corbyn's foolish mistake of unconditionally promising to support the triggering of A50. You should make it clear that without effective amendments, you will not support the bill.
Sir Keir told me of three concessions he believed Labour had won:
1. A White Paper
2. Regular reports to Parliament on the negotiations
3. A vote for Parliament on the final terms.
I explained to him that the 'concessions' are meaningless.
The White Paper is so vague and uncosted that it constitutes an insult to Parliament.
Unless Labour suddenly discovers some backbone, the regular reports will just be the Brexiters' usual mixture of empty slogans and wishful thinking.
As for the final vote, the government is saying it will still be a 'take whatever terms Theresa May has agreed however bad they are' or leave without any agreement which will be even worse.
So at the very least, the Lords need to pass the following amendments:
1. The government must keep us full members of the Single Market. Theresa May and every other Tory MP was elected on this promise, and throughout the referendum campaign, Leave campaigners were falling over themselves to say they did not wish to leave it.
2. When Theresa May has completed her negotiations, she must come to Parliament for approval of the proposed settlement. If it is rejected by Parliament, the UK will remain a member of the EU.
3. To be valid, any final agreement must win the approval of the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies. Until this is given, the UK remains a member of the EU.
Labour's betrayal of the country and its own voters has done it dreadful damage. You now have perhaps the last chance to repair some of this. 
Gina Miller risked her life to give Parliament a say on Brexit. MPs have shamefully let her down. Don't do the same in the Lords.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely,

John Withington

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Brexitwatch - Labour Brexit spokesperson Sir Keir Starmer tries to justify his party's behaviour + my response


With Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (pictured) ordering his MPs to support Brexit, Theresa May's government emerged unscathed from what should have been a testing ordeal in the House of Commons where most MPs realise leaving the EU will be a disaster. Labour did not manage to get a single amendment passed to the bill triggering Article 50.

Below is Sir Keir Starmer's justification of their approach, and my response.

(For previous letters from Sir Keir and my responses see my posts of Jan 23 and 27 and Feb 2.)

Dear Sir Keir,
Thank you for your emails. As you know I reject the idea that a non-binding referendum is binding, and I will not go over again the reasons I have already given you for considering the 'will of the people' argument utterly bogus.
In my view, your and Labour's support for the triggering of Article 50 was a betrayal of the country and of Labour voters, all of whom will suffer as a result.
As for the things you say Labour has achieved:
1. The White Paper, which Labour did not even bother to examine before trooping through the lobbies with the Tories and UKIP to trigger A50. The document is an insult to Parliament and the British people. It offers no price tags for the foolish policies it advocates, and on the crucial issues of the Single Market and the customs union, it just rehashes the same old wishful thinking and empty slogans.
2. Reporting process. Unless Labour very quickly discovers some backbone, this will be about as useful as the White Paper, with Theresa May getting away with the same old platitudes.
3. A final vote. Every single amendment was voted down. You claim there will be a meaningful vote in Parliament on any terms Theresa May manages to negotiate, but the government says the position is unchanged and MPs will be faced with accepting the PM's deal, however bad it may be, or leaving with no deal at all, which is likely to be even worse. Labour FAILED to win the right to send Mrs May back to the negotiating table.
If Labour had stood by its principles and its supporters (most of whom oppose Brexit), there would have been every chance of passing a number of amendments. Mrs May has a tiny majority in Parliament, and many in her own party are unhappy about the extreme Brexit she is pursuing. But most potential Tory rebels saw little point in putting their own necks on the line when the Opposition did not have the guts to oppose her.
This whole process has been a catastrophic failure for Labour, and if continuing in your position is going to mean continuing to support Brexit, I would urge you to resign now and start opposing something you must know will do terrible damage to your country, your constituents and all Labour voters.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Yours sincerely,
John Withington
On 10 February 2017 at 15:45 STARMER, Keir wrote:

Thank you for your email.

Having campaigned passionately across the country for the UK to remain in the EU, the outcome of the referendum result last June came as a bitter disappointment to me. Along with many others in the 48% who voted to remain, I cherish not just the practical benefits of EU membership but also the fact of being an EU citizens.

But we lost the referendum and, as democrats, we have to accept the result. I acknowledge that some people disagree and believe that the result should be ignored. But having worked as a human rights lawyer in countries where citizens are either denied a vote or their votes are ignored, I cannot accept that argument.

Although the referendum was, technically, advisory, it was politically binding. None of us who campaigned day in and day out ever suggested that the exercise was simply advisory. I told people that they should vote, that it mattered and that there were consequences, and I’m not prepared to re-write history. That is why the Labour Party has repeatedly said that it accepts and respects the outcome of the referendum. It follows that the Prime Minister must be empowered to start the negotiations for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Over the last three months Labour has been working to put in place proper scrutiny of the Brexit process. Although each step has been incremental, the Government has moved its from position from October – when they had no plan, were insisting there would be no running commentary and would not commit to a vote on the final Article 50 deal – to:

i)                    Publishing a 76 page White Paper on which Parliament can hold them to account. This was one of Labour’s planned amendments for Committee Stage, but this was withdrawn after the Government’s concession.

ii)                  A commitment to match reporting back procedures that are in place in the European Parliament during the Article 50 process.

iii)                A vote in Parliament on the proposed draft Article 50 deal before it is considered by the EU Parliament or Council, as well as a second vote on the final EU-UK deal that will shape our future relationship with the EU.

Taken together these show progress has been made.

What matters now is that we ensure that the Article 50 process results in the best deal possible for the UK and the rest of the EU and that we ensure that the UK has a strong and ongoing relationship with the EU in the future. Labour has consistently said that jobs and the economy must come first and we have been fighting for tariff-free and barrier-free access to the single market and for a deal that works for the services sector as well as goods. I have been travelling all over the UK talking to many communities and businesses about precisely what they need to get out of the Article 50 deal and will continue to do so.

But I want more than that. What many of us value about our relationship with the EU is the collaborative and co-operative approach in ensures in vital areas such as science, technology, medicine, arts, culture and, of course, policing and counter-terrorism. There is no reason why a new relationship with the EU cannot be forged on these principles and that is what I, and the Labour Party, will be fighting for. A values-led approach to our ongoing relationship with the EU, not the abandonment of any relation with the EU.

I am happy to talk this through with you further if that would be helpful.

Yours,

Keir

Friday, 10 February 2017

Brexitwatch: Don't endorse David Cameron




Who is more to blame for Brexit? Theresa May or David Cameron? It is certainly true that May's pursuit of the most extreme and destructive form of Brexit in order to keep the Tory Party together is irresponsible and disgraceful, but surely Mr Cameron is even more culpable.

Crime 1. To try to keep the Tory Party together, he was prepared to risk the future of his country. And he created a referendum loaded heavily in favour of the Leave faction. But at least he promised that whatever the outcome, he would stay in power to deal with it.

Crime 2. Instead, within hours, he had announced his resignation, leaving others to clear up the mess he had made.

Now Alzheimer's Research UK have made Mr Cameron their president. I consider it an insult to the people of the UK to endorse him in this way, and have written to protest:

Ms Hilary Evans,
Chief Executive,
Alzheimer’s Research UK,
3, Granta Park,
Riverside,
Cambridge CB21 6AD.

Dear Ms Evans,

I was horrified to discover that you have appointed David Cameron as your president.

When he was Prime Minister, Mr Cameron devised a thoroughly irresponsible referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. He did this as a shabby manoeuvre to keep his party together without concerning himself with the effect it would have on his country.

The referendum caused deep divisions within our country, racism, xenophobia, violence and threats of violence against many people, and an outcome that is likely to make people poorer, especially those who are already poor, and to cause public services, such as the NHS and social care tor the elderly, to face completely inadequate funding.

Before the vote, Mr Cameron had promised to stay on as Prime Minister whatever the result. Instead, within hours, he resigned, abandoning his country to its fate, and leaving others to try to clean up the mess he had created.

This conduct falls below the standard you should expect in someone holding the office of your president, and I trust you will sever your links with Mr Cameron without delay.

Yours sincerely,


John Withington

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Brexitwatch: how Labour justifies its support of Article 50 and my response



My MP happens to be Sir Keir Starmer, Labour's spokesperson on Brexit. I have written to him twice recently (see my posts of Jan 23 and Jan 27).
Below you will find his response of Jan 31 and my reply to it.
Dear Sir Keir,
I wrote to you and emailed you, so should I take your response below as a reply to both my letter and my email?
I find a number of fallacies in your argument.
1. You concede that the referendum was not legally binding, but you say it is still binding. This is to undermine Parliament and deny the rule of law. If Parliament had wanted the referendum to be binding, it would have made it binding. It did not. The law is what the law says, not what some section of the country wishes it had said.
I suspect what you mean is that Labour have decided it would be politically inconvenient to refuse to trigger Article 50 because there are a couple of awkward by-elections coming up.
2. However, even if you decide that you must be bound by the result of a non-binding referendum, you should not have been supporting the triggering of A50 until you had examined the government's promised White Paper to ensure that the Prime Minister has a credible plan for life outside the EU.
Labour made quite a song and dance about getting this White Paper, and yet you joined the Tories and UKIP in supporting the A50 trigger without even seeing it!
3. According to your arguments, and those I have had the misfortune to hear from some of your Labour colleagues, you are bound to support the 'will of the people' however much damage it is going to cause. It is the duty of an MP to act in the interests of the country and his/her constituents, so I am afraid I regard this argument as simply mad.
4. The Brexit that was promised by the Leave Campaign - ending Free Movement while keeping full membership of the Single Market, new riches for the NHS etc - cannot be delivered.
Sooner of later those who voted Leave will have to be told this. Whenever that happens, it will cause a terrible row. So better to do it now before millions of Labour voters have been impoverished, and thousands have lost their jobs or their businesses, the UK has broken up etc.
Sir Keir, you may be prepared to change your principles, but I am not going to change mine. As I have told you before, I will not vote in any election for any party or politician that facilitates our removal from the EU. Indeed, I will do everything I can to ensure their defeat.
There seems a dangerous illusion abroad in the Labour Party that this is all going to blow over. That the Remainers will eventually reconcile themselves to being dragged out of the EU. I believe this is wrong because every day people will be reminded of the rights they have had stolen.
 Labour's behaviour over the last couple of days has been a bitter disappointment. I urge you to get off the present disastrous track while there is still a Labour Party worth saving.
Yours in continuing sorrow and anger,
John Withington
On 31 January 2017 at 17:11 STARMER, Keir wrote:

Thank you for emailing me about the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill now before the House of Commons.

Please forgive the generic reply, but I have had many similar emails. Please also forgive the lengthy email – but none of this is straightforward!

Having campaigned across the country – with many members from Holborn & St Pancras CLP - for a ‘Remain’ vote, I was saddened and frustrated by the outcome of the referendum. For me and for many Labour MPs the Article 50 vote now presents an agonising choice and I have thought long and hard about the right course of action.

Although I am fiercely pro-EU, I am also a democrat. The Labour Party voted in favour of the Referendum Act, which paved the way for the referendum, and everyone who campaigned knew the outcome would be decisive. Some have argued that the referendum was merely advisory. Legally that is true, but the arguments are not just legal – they are deeply political and, politically, the notion that the referendum was merely a consultation exercise to inform Parliament holds no water. Equally the argument the leave vote was only 37% of those eligible to vote loses its strength against the argument that less than 37% voted to remain. Neither side can claim that those who did not vote would have vote either to leave or to remain. We simply do not know.
There is a wider point. Since I was appointed to my current role, I have travelled all over the UK – including to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I have met groups and individuals, held public events, talked to businesses large and small and discussed Brexit with different political parties and leaders.

From this, the evidence is clear: as a society we are more divided now than at any time in my life. The divide is deep and, in some instances, it is bitter. Labour must play its part in healing that divide: it cannot do so if it refuses to accept the outcome of the referendum.

That is why I have repeatedly said that although I wish the outcome of the referendum had been different, I accept and respect the result.

It follows that it would be wrong simply to frustrate the process and to block the Prime Minister from starting the Article 50 negotiations. I will not therefore be voting against the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill this week.

The ballot paper on 23 June last year did not, however, give the Prime Minister power to act as she sees fit or to change our domestic laws or policy. That is why I have tabled a number of Labour amendments that would significantly improve the Bill and ensure Parliament can hold the Prime Minister to account throughout negotiations. I will be taking these amendments through for Labour in the House of Commons next week.

First, these amendments would ensure MPs have a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal – that means the House of Commons has the first say on any proposed deal before it is considered by the European Council and Parliament. This would strengthen the House of Commons’ ability to influence the negotiating process and mean that MPs could send the Government back to the negotiating table if they are unhappy with the proposed final deal.

Second, the Government should report back to Parliament regularly during the negotiations so that progress can be known and checked. Labour has also tabled amendments that establish a number of broad principles the Government must seek to negotiate, including protecting workers’ rights and securing full tariff and impediment free access to the Single Market. We will also try to ensure that the legal status of EU citizens already living in the UK is guaranteed before negotiations begin – a point that is long overdue.
 
It is also important to recognise that the triggering of Article 50 is merely the start of theprocess for leaving the EU, it is not the end.

Any changes the Prime Minister seeks to make to domestic law would need separate legislation to be passed through Parliament, whether through the Great Repeal Bill or more widely. Labour will argue throughout for a Brexit deal that puts jobs and the economy first and protects vital workers’ rights and environmental protections. We also totally reject the Prime Minister’s threat to rip up the economic and social fabric of the country and turn Britain into a tax haven economy if she fails in her negotiations.
As Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU I have been very clear that Labour will hold the Government to account every step of the way.

I know that many people have urged me to reflect the 75% Remain vote in Holborn and St Pancras by voting against Article 50 and resigning my post in the Shadow Cabinet.

I see the argument, but that would prevent me pressing Labour’s amendments, it would prevent me questioning the Government relentlessly from the front bench over the coming years and it would prevent me fighting as hard as I can for a Brexit on the right terms.

It would be to walk off the pitch just when we need effective challenge to government. I believe that would be the wrong thing to do.

I know that not everyone will agree with my approach, but I hope that my explanation helps.
All best,
Keir

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Brexitwatch: Free speech for Jeremy Corbyn (and every other MP)


Over the next two days, the UK's Parliament is debating the government's triggering of Article 50 to give notice we are leaving the EU. The EU referendum, of course, was advisory only, so no MP is required to obey its result, but Jeremy Corbyn and most others are choosing to pretend they are, so let's indulge them.

Most MPs know leaving the EU will severely damage our country, so here is the speech that every MP should be making: 

"I have no wish to frustrate the wishes of the British people as demonstrated in last June's referendum. But if we leave the EU on unsatisfactory terms, that will do terrible damage to our country.

After pressure from Parliament, the Prime Minister has finally agreed that she will produce a White Paper setting out how the government intends to secure a satisfactory agreement with our EU partners.

It is clearly premature to trigger Article 50 before Parliament has had a proper opportunity to examine those plans so I will be voting against triggering Article 50 until the government has demonstrated that it has a credible plan for life outside the EU."

Why is it so hard to say that?