29 November 2019

The Labour and Conservative party manifestos promise to get Brexit sorted, but Joe Owen argues that they are looking only at the short term and fail to answer the important questions.

Whoever gets the keys to 10 Downing Street on 13 December could hold them for at least the next half a decade. But the urgent issue hanging over the new prime minister will be Brexit – complete with a ticking clock. And a deadline, part legal, part self-imposed, that is drawing closer.

Both main parties will want Brexit settled long before they go back to the country again. But with the manifestos now published, neither Boris Johnson’s Conservatives nor Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party offer any real clarity on their long-term Brexit settlement.

Given that this has been billed as the Brexit election, it is both stark and worrying that the men who could be prime-minister have offered such little information to voters about what Brexit could mean once their tenancy in Downing Street comes to an end.

Labour’s Brexit policy only really works if the country votes to remain

Labour wants to negotiate a new Brexit deal in three months and then hold a referendum – between that deal and Remain – by July 2020. The timeline is unrealistic. But there are much bigger gaps in its proposals.

Firstly, it is very unclear what a Labour deal would look like. Remember, Labour is talking about a withdrawal agreement – so all the party’s promises about “close relationship to the single market” and a “customs union” are largely irrelevant to the legal text it would need to agree. In practice, this will be a version of the deal negotiated by Theresa May, which included a customs union as part of the insurance policy for the Irish border. Key changes are likely to be added time for transition – and additional money in the financial settlement as a result.

If the country votes Remain in the referendum, Jeremy Corbyn will no doubt hope that, by 2024, we are not discussing Europe but are instead focusing on his transformation of the economy. But if the country votes to leave, and accepts Labour’s deal, then Corbyn won’t escape Brexit. He will merely be at the foothills – and Labour is a long way from identifying, let alone agreeing, a route through.

One of the luxuries of opposition is that you can just oppose, and if a second referendum sees the country vote Leave then Corbyn will need answers to the questions he has been avoiding. Does “close relationship with the single market” mean “members of the single market, including free movement”? Will Labour accept a customs union with no say over trade policy? What does Labour want to do about the common agricultural policy and common fisheries policy? Or, more simply, are there areas of EU law where Labour really does want to diverge and if not, what’s the point of leaving?

Just like the Tory prime ministers before him, a Prime Minister Corbyn will find it difficult to answer these questions while keeping his party together. If he is relying on the SNP and/or Lib Dems for a working majority, he might find it impossible to keep control of the House of Commons. In short – Labour only really offers clarity on the future if Remain wins the referendum. If it doesn’t, the future could contain very little certainty or stability.

The Conservatives are asking for a blank cheque from voters on Brexit

The Conservatives are promising to get Brexit done – but with little information about what that means. Yes, Boris Johnson has a withdrawal agreement which he could get though the Commons in January. But that doesn’t get Brexit done.

The twists and turns of the Withdrawal Agreement have felt all-consuming at times, but it is really just the warm-up act for the main event. It only covers the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and the Irish border. The UK’s yet to be negotiated future relationship with the EU matters more – and will matter for longer – than anything discussed between the UK and EU so far. On those details, the Conservative manifesto is silent.

All the manifesto says about the future relationship is that it won’t involve the single market, the European Court of Justice or the customs union – and that it will be agreed by December 2020. Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement already gives the ECJ a role in the UK post-Brexit and his timeline, like Labour’s is unrealistic. The manifesto is asking voters to take a huge leap of faith.

Both Labour and the Conservatives say nothing beyond the short term on Brexit

By the time the next Parliament is due to come to an end in 2024, the UK will have made some fundamental choices – yet neither party have set out in any detail how they would even address the difficult questions ahead.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is offering a process, which could bring Brexit to an end or begin a whole new phase of uncertainty. While Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is asking voters to simply trust him with the details.

For all the promises of getting Brexit done or sorted, neither Labour nor the Conservatives offer any clarity on Brexit beyond their first few months in Downing Street.