This article was first published on the Independent 25 April 2017.
Like everyone – indeed, most of the Cabinet – I was not expecting this general election. Perhaps naively, I took the Prime Minister at her word when she repeatedly pledged that the current parliament would keep going until 2020. While I welcome any opportunity to get rid of a Tory Government, it is quite clear that the Prime Minister’s public rationale for calling this general election was cynical and dishonest.
She had already triggered Article 50. She had used her majority to do so without any of the very reasonable amendments I and others tabled to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 a couple of months ago. So, far from needing a larger majority to get Brexit through the House of Commons, Theresa May has already done so with the current one. So her real reasons for calling an election, in the hope of gaining a bigger majority, are twofold.
First, she wants the power to enact a right-wing Tory agenda unencumbered by the consciences of some of her MPs. Grammar schools and a Budget that will raise taxes on working people while cutting their public services are just two things we can expect from an empowered Tory Government.
Second, she wants to be able to escape any scrutiny whatsoever for the Brexit deal that is eventually negotiated. She wants the freedom to go back on all the promises made by her and by the Leave campaigners with little meaningful challenge in Parliament. And she would have more of an ability to go for the worst option of all – a destructive Brexit with no deal, that would mean us defaulting onto WTO trading terms, leading to high tariffs on all our imports and exports; a job-destroying, price-raising nightmare scenario that would leave working people worse off.
The Prime Minister has talked of bringing a still-divided Britain together after a bruising referendum. But she and her hard Brexit allies in and out of parliament are intent on dividing our country still further, dismissing all who want even to scrutinise her policies as “saboteurs”. The spectre of an emboldened Prime Minister set on hard Brexit should be deeply concerning for anyone who cares about Britain’s future and wants to see a fairer, more equal country.
Labour has rightly set out tests on which the Government must be held to account. The Open Britain campaign, of which I am a supporter, has set out the Brexit Contract, outlining the 10 promises ministers have made on which they must be judged. And Vote Leave Watch, which I chair, has been prominent in reminding people of the £350 million extra per week promised to the NHS. All of us have been highlighting what the "exact same benefits" in trade, as David Davis promised, should look like, how Brexit could destabilise Northern Ireland, the risks of a dilution of our workers’ and consumer rights, and so on. We will all hold this Government responsible for what comes to pass.
Why? Because no matter how people voted last June, they did not vote for a hard Tory Brexit that will make working people worse off and reduce our rights at work. Keir Starmer is right to hold the Government to account for their promise to deliver the “exact same benefits” as we have now. In reality, this means we have to stay in the Single Market – no ifs, no buts. No alternative to the Single Market can deliver the same economic benefits. So I have told constituents I will fight to keep Britain in the Single Market and Customs Union after Brexit; oppose any attempt to reduce our rights at work, as the Tory hardliners would like; and argue that we should continue to work closely with our European partners in the fight against common cross-border challenges – terrorism, organised crime, and climate change. We must also lead the charge to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in our country. This is the argument I am making in Streatham, and will continue to make in Parliament if re-elected.
Only Labour have the ability to do this. The Liberal Democrats are trying to bury their recent past as the enablers of Tory austerity, but working people in this country will not forget or forgive the damage they did in government and what it is still doing to our communities today. The Greens – like Ukip and the Tories – campaigned for the in/out referendum which led to Brexit which they now complain about, and the SNP, confined for Scotland, are trying to divide our country by breaking yet another Union. Only Labour has the capacity to mount a sustained challenge to the Conservatives, and build a brighter, fairer future for Britain. In short: the more Labour MPs that are elected on 8 June, the harder it will be for Theresa May to pursue an unchecked hard Brexit on 9 June.