- REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
- Chuka Umunna calls on Corbyn to come out explicitly for a soft Brexit in order to avoid torpedoing his own plans for government.
- Labour MP accuses Brexiteers of trying to “normalise violence.”
- He says Brexit Secretary David Davis would have had to resign “in ordinary circumstances” for misleading parliament.
- The former leadership contender says he is “open-minded” about his future in politics.
LONDON – Chuka Umunna has warned Jeremy Corbyn that leaving the single market and customs union would “torpedo” Labour’s spending plans and has called on the party leadership to adopt a much softer Brexit position.
The Labour MP told Business Insider that “the best anti-austerity policy” Corbyn could adopt is a commitment to stay both in the single market and customs union on a permanent basis, warning that a post-Brexit Labour government would not have enough money to fund its transformative manifesto if Britain leaves the two institutions.
Umunna was one of 93 MPs who voted for an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill on Tuesday night calling on the UK government to keep the door open to permanent single market membership. 315 MPs voted against it.
The MP for Streatham and former shadow cabinet minister told BI that Labour’s commitment to keep Britain in the single market and customs union during a transition period is “useful” but warned that it didn’t go far enough.
“It’s still not a soft Brexit,” Umunna told BI.
“As thing stand, we are still planning to jump off a cliff. In some quarters transition is talked about like some all-important, safe harbour from the damage that will follow. It’s absolutely nothing of the sort.”
Umunna spoke to BI on the same day that Brexit Secretary Davis was forced to backtrack on his claim that the Brexit deal agreed between Britain and the EU last week was a “statement of intent” and not legally binding.
It had been a difficult week for Davis. The Brexit Secretary, who told LBC on Sunday that he doesn’t have to “know that much” to do his job, was widely-criticised last week after revealing his department hadn’t produced papers on how leaving the EU could impact individual sectors of the British economy, despite previously suggesting that it had.
“In ordinary circumstances, a Cabinet minister who has played fast and loose with the details of their brief, so much so that on the face of it appears that they’ve misled Parliament, they would be required to resign,” Umunna told BI.
“If you’re incapable of seeing the importance of being on top of the detail in a job like this then there is a real question over your fitness for office.”
However, Umunna, who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations, said that blaming the “incompetence” of Davis and other ministers for the difficulties faced by Britain in Brexit talks would be to gloss over the “impossible” task of delivering the Brexit promised to voters by Leave campaigners.
“Government incompetence hasn’t helped but the real problem is that Brexit in terms of how it was sold to the British people is impossible to deliver. That’s the real issue here.”
Brexit in terms of how it was sold to the British people is impossible to deliver. That’s the real issue here.”
“The analogy I like using is that of a car,” he added.
“You’ve got these secondhand car salesmen in Gove [Michael] and Johnson [Boris] who have sold you what you thought was going to be a shiny new Audi with not much mileage on the clock. You envisage getting from A to B very easily.
“Now you’ve gone to look at the car in the showroom, and it’s an old banger, with no added extras, god knows how many miles on the clock, and it’s going to break down. Their worry is that you’ll now want to abort your purchase.
“They are absolutely petrified of what would happen if we do not leave on this arbitrary date of March 29, 2019. That’s what’s really going on here.
“That’s why the Brexiteers haven’t kicked off on the divorce bill and haven’t kicked off on a whole host of issues. They just want us to get to March 29, 2019, and get us out, whatever the cost to peoples’ jobs and livelihoods.”
The first phase of Brexit talks was the easy part
Umunna has met with representatives from three-quarters of EU27 governments and from these encounters has identified three key reasons why he believes the second phase of Brexit talks will be “far more difficult” than the first.
Firstly, the Labour MP said, EU governments have found their UK counterparts “very difficult to negotiate with” because Prime Minister May’s position is frequently being undermined by Cabinet ministers like Johnson.
“Our EU partners are constantly looking over her shoulder to see what they say. That has been brought up time and time again with me,” Umunna said.
Secondly, EU governments “just don’t know the endstate that May is aiming for.” Chancellor Philip Hammond said last week that there had been no discussion within Cabinet regarding the endpoint UK government envisages. Cabinet is due to debate this for the first time next week.
And thirdly, the potential future trade arrangement floated by Davis, described by the Brexit Secretary as “Canada plus plus,” will be very difficult to sell to the national and regional parliaments of the EU member states.
Canada’s free trade deal with the EU (CETA) would be a “terrible” template for Britain, Umunna said, because it does not include services, which account for 80% of Britain’s economy. CETA also took seven years to negotiate.
Davis has suggested replicating CETA but with the addition of a UK-EU agreement on services. It’s “highly unlikely” that the EU27 would agree to this, at least not quickly, Umunna claimed EU governments have told him.
“A treaty covering the whole of the future arrangements would have to be ratified by the national and regional parliaments of all the EU27. They do not expect that to be an easy process at all.”
Some Brexiteers are “trying to normalise violence”
Umunna was confident that increasing uncertainty caused by Brexit and its effects on the cost of living for British people will eventually lead the public to side with a soft version of Brexit, or perhaps even no Brexit at all.
Some of them are deliberately trying to normalise violence.
However, he attacked figures on the Brexit side who he believes have been “talking up the threat of violence” to shut down debate on Brexit and deter any effort within Westminster to keep Britain closely wedded to the EU.
Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage has warned that failure to deliver Brexit would unleash “political anger the likes of which none of us in our lifetimes have ever witnessed” and warned of “disturbance in the streets and so on.”
“We are going down a very dangerous avenue indeed because people are talking up the threat of violence,” Umunna said.
“The worry is that those who have said if you don’t do a hard Brexit there’ll be violence in the street, some of them are deliberately trying to normalise violence. I’m not going to name any names.
“But they are trying to normalise violence and that is very dangerous.”
He added: “It was a very finely-balanced vote. 600,000 votes in it. While the narrative is that it was somehow an overwhelming vote to leave the EU.”
If not Brexit, then what?
Umunna realises that Brexit was a symptom of “big problems” in society which successive governments have failed to address.
“Real incomes will not return to 2007 levels until 2025. 14 million people in our country are living in relative poverty. It’s not at all surprising that people are angry at the system and I totally get that,” he said.
“I want nothing more than to reduce inequality and poverty. But I’m absolutely clear that Brexit is not the solution. It will exacerbate them.”
If leaving the EU won’t solve these problems, what will?
“A Labour government with a true, radical social democratic agenda. One that doesn’t pretend the state has the answer to all these problems but also that the markets don’t have the answer to these problems.
“A government that looks at how the state and the markets can work together to empower people and help them succeed.”
Umunna was a prominent critic of Corbyn prior to the election. So does he believe a Labour government led by Corbyn would also succeed?
“Yes,” he replies.
So what about Umunna’s own future. Would he serve in a Corbyn Cabinet?
“My aspirations aren’t to have a particular position. My aim is to reduce inequality and poverty,” he says.
“You’re setting yourself up for a fall if you have a prescriptive idea of what you want to do because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.
“But in the same way we should be open-minded about Brexit, I am very open-minded about my future.”