After 43 years of membership, exiting the EU was never going to be easy. But the government’s current tone and approach is making a hard job even more difficult. There have been 165 days since the referendum result and there are only 118 left until the prime minister’s 31 March deadline to trigger article 50. The clock is ticking, but still we do not know the government’s basic plan for Brexit.
We do not have answers to fundamental questions such as the government’s position on the customs union, our likely relationship with the single market or future contributions to the EU budget. The government has also failed to provide much-needed certainty for the 3.5 million EU citizens living in the UK.
This matters, because uncertainty over the government’s plans – and the continuing likelihood that it favours a hard Brexit – is weakening our negotiating position and making it less likely that Britain will get the best possible Brexit deal, one that protects jobs, the economy and living standards.
This uncertainty is already feeding through to the economy, with the Office for Budget Responsibility revising down business investment by 4.7% this year. Uncertainty over the status of EU nationals has also contributed to a surge in applications for UK residency from those worried about what the future may bring.
The prime minister, Theresa May, and her Brexit secretary, David Davis, have repeatedly said there will be no running commentary on their article 50 plans. But in the past few days and weeks, this is precisely what we have seen – a running commentary provided by leaked memos, notes caught on camera and the foreign secretary’s novel approach to diplomacy.
At the same time, parliament is being sidelined and denied the chance to scrutinise the government’s plans on the most important issue facing the country for generations. The prime minister should know that without greater clarity over the basic terms of her Brexit strategy this speculation and uncertainty will persist. And for as long as this is the case, our negotiating hand weakens.
During recent visits to Brussels, I have been left in no doubt that our EU negotiating partners are deeply concerned that the government’s tone and approach are hindering a mutually beneficial Brexit deal.
Instead of providing certainty over the UK’s basic aims, the government has put out mixed messages, veering from the extreme version of Brexit suggested by the prime minister’s party conference speech to the undefined version of Brexit suggested by the Nissan deal and Davis’s comments that EU budget contributions may continue post-Brexit.
We need to end this unnecessary uncertainty. That is why Labour has called an opposition day debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday on a motion that calls for the government to publish a plan for Brexit before article 50 is invoked.
Labour accepts and respects the referendum result. We recognise Britain is leaving the EU and we will not frustrate the process that leads to that.
But we will also fight for a Brexit deal that is in the national interest – not in the interest of the 52% or the 48%, but for the 100%.
That means opposing a hard Brexit that risks jobs and our economy and fighting to ensure that key protections on workers’ rights and the environment are retained and enhanced. It also means holding the government to account every step of the way and making sure it has a proper plan to deliver the smart, sensible Brexit we need.
Labour’s motion in the Commons on Wednesday is an important step in that process. It calls for a basic plan – not the finer detail or minutiae of a negotiating position, but a basic plan – for Brexit to be put before the public and parliament.
On the defining issue of our time, that surely is not too much to ask.
Keir Starmer QC, shadow secretary of state for exiting the EU, is MP for Holborn & St Pancras