Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, has insisted he will hold Theresa May to account over her plans for taking Britain out of the European Union, as MPs overwhelmingly backed a government amendment endorsing the prime minister’s self-imposed March deadline for triggering article 50.
Both sides declared victory News after a lively debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday that lasted more than six hours. Starmer, and pro-remain Conservative backbenchers, challenged David Davis, the minister for exiting the EU, to produce a “detailed” picture of his negotiating strategy before article 50 is formally triggered – but a series of interventions from MPs underlined the divisions in both parties.
The Commons passed Labour’s motion calling for “the prime minister to commit to publishing the government’s plan for leaving the EU before article 50 is invoked” by 448 to 75 votes – a majority of 373 – after it was amended by Downing Street to “call on the government to invoke article 50 by 31 March 2017”.
The vote is non-binding but was a highly symbolic moment as it marked the first time MPs had endorsed the government’s Brexit timetable, announced by May at the Conservative party conference. Douglas Carswell, Ukip’s one MP, said it was the end of a “long road”.
The Tory former Cabinet minister and leave supporter Iain Duncan Smith said the vote was a “historic moment” and that the government had called Labour’s bluff: “They have had to vote to give us a date, so that is a real blank cheque for the government. That means that no matter what happens now in parliament, Labour is signed up to the principle that by March 31 next year the government will have been able to invoke article 50.”
Labour’s Keir Starmer reacts to Brexit Secretary David Davis’ Statement on Article 50
More than 20 Labour MPs voted against their own party line to oppose the amendment, amid disquiet about the leadership’s tactics. Some disgruntled backbenchers suggested that scores of Labour MPs had abstained.Labour MPs defying Starmer’s approach and refusing to back the government’s amendment also included three shadow ministers – Daniel Zeichner, Catherine West and Tulip Siddiq.
The SNP, Green party MP Caroline Lucas and the Liberal Democrats voted against the motion, with the Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, suggesting Labour had allowed itself to be “muzzled”.
He tweeted: “Labour & Tories holding hands towards a hard Brexit, refusing to seek the will of the people on the deal. I want democracy not a stitch up.”
However, Starmer sought to show that Labour will use the motion to exert pressure on the government. He said a “late, vague plan” would not be good enough, and he would measure any published negotiating strategy against five tests:
1)Does it answers key questions such as whether the UK will seek to remain within the customs union and the EU single market?
2)Does it give enough detail for MPs, including on the Brexit select committee chaired by Hilary Benn, to scrutinise the government’s approach?
3)Does it provide enough information for the independent Office for Budget Responsibility to make detailed economic forecasts?
4)Will it address the concerns of the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales?
5)Does it “have enough detail to build genuine consensus”?
Starmer, the MP for Holborn and St Pancras, stressed the need for the government to act for voters who backed remain in June’s referendum, as well as those who wanted to leave.“That is an important point, because the future of this country is bound up with the negotiations, and it is wrong in principle for the government to act solely for the 52% – to base its approach on the 52% or a group within the 52%,” he said.If Labour is not satisfied the tests are met, he said the party would seek to amend the bill that the government is expected to bring to parliament to trigger article 50, if it loses the ongoing supreme court appeal.
Davis insisted the government had made no new concessions by agreeing to support the Labour motion and had always been clear it would keep parliament informed. He said by supporting the amended motion, Labour was “signing up” to triggering article 50.“Dance on a pin as the shadow spokesman may, that’s what they’re signing up to – the government will invoke article 50 by 31 March 2017,” he said. He added that it had always been his approach to outline the government’s strategy to MPs, so long as it did not undermine the government’s negotiating strategy.
He said the government’s amendment had “laid down an important challenge” to opposition MPs who said they supported the verdict in the referendum but were seeking to “thwart” Brexit.
“We will see today if they’re willing to back the government in getting on with implementing the decision made by the voters of the United Kingdom,” Davis said.
He stressed that the government would need to maintain some secrecy around its aims in the two-year negotiating process, in order to “retain room for manoeuvre, including the ability to give and take, to trade off different interests, to maximise the value of concessions, and to do so without always giving the other side advance notice.
We must retain the ability to negotiate with a high degree of agility and speed; the more complex the negotiation, the more parties to it, and the more time-pressured it is, the more important that is.”Tory backbenchers from both sides of the Brexit divide intervened.Brexit supporter John Redwood said: “As we bring the country together it is important that people do not look for possible or imaginary problems, because we want the strongest possible position to negotiate the best possible answer for the country, and we need to unite to do so.”