MPs are gearing up for a fight with Theresa May over access to the EU’s Single Market, as the government prepares for a series of legal battles over its right to take Brexit decisions alone.
May has come under fire from senior backbenchers and business groups after a Conservative Party conference that saw the Prime Minister suggest she would prioritise immigration reform over Single Market access, with campaigners branding the focus “destructive”.
The row comes as the government prepares to argue in court this week to defend its ability to activate Article 50 without the consent of parliamentarians.
Yesterday MPs took to the airwaves to argue May has no mandate to take the UK out of the Single Market, highlighting the party’s 2015 manifesto commitment to retaining access.
The manifesto, on which all Tory MPs stood, stated: “We are clear about what we want from Europe. We say: yes to the Single Market. Yes to turbocharging free trade.”
Now MPs including former Labour leader Ed Miliband, former Conservative ministers Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry, and former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg want to force May to appear before parliament to explain the role of MPs in future Brexit decisions.
Their plan is to secure a parliamentary vote on the final terms of Britain’s separation from the EU, especially if this includes the termination of Single Market membership.
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, also weighed in. Starmer, who returned to Labour’s front bench last week in a reshuffle following Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader, told the BBC: “The referendum is clear and has to be accepted and we can’t have a re-run of the question that was put to the country earlier this year.
“But, and it’s a big but, there has to be democratic grip of the process and, at the moment, what the Prime Minister’s trying to do is to manoeuvre without any scrutiny in parliament and that’s why the terms on which we’re going to negotiate absolutely have to be put to a vote in the House.”
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Speaking to Sky News yesterday, Labour’s Pat McFadden said: “People didn’t vote to become poorer. People didn’t vote to take an axe to the manufacturing industry. People didn’t vote to make it much more difficult for our service industries to operate.
“But these things are on the line in these discussions, and it’s the real world influence of that that you’ve started to see coming through in the currency markets this week.”
However, a Downing Street source hit back, telling City A.M.: “Of course parliament will have a role in the exit process, but this suggestion is simply an attempt to find another way to thwart the will of the British people.”
And entrepreneur Richard Tice, founder of Brexit campaign group Leave Means Leave, added: “The British public have voted to leave the EU and the government must deliver on this in full. This is a deliberate attempt to sabotage the will of the people.”
Top businessman and Labour supporter John Mills agreed, telling City A.M. that Brexit negotiations have to reflect the 23 June vote. “We cannot go on paying the EU a net £11bn a year. We need to recover control of our own law-making. Can we achieve these objectives while we stay in the Single Market? Probably not, in which case Labour would be extremely unwise to pin our future on staying within it.”
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The trade bodies joined the International Chamber of Commerce and lobby group techUK to call for government focus on tariff-free trade, and demand a commitment to avoiding World Trade Organisation rules, which could lead to an increase on tariffs for some exports.
Last night the Institute of Directors said that WTO rules should not be seen as an “easy fallback”.
Later this week Attorney General Jeremy Wright will defend in court the government’s right to activate Article 50 without parliamentary approval. Wright will make the government’s case in two sessions as it argues that calls for MPs to vote in favour of triggering the Brexit process “have no legal merit”.