A lot has already been written about the repeated threats – by David Frost in particular in his capacity as chief Brexit negotiator – to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol. A lot more has now been written on the recent change of tone by Frost. In his speech in the House of Lords and an official statement he has issued, he has urged “new energy and impetus” to find a consensual agreement to all the issues.
Leaving aside the minor issue that the EU seems to have been the side addressing the problems seriously by producing a list of measures taken to address the UK government’s practical concerns. Frost has explicitly said that the decision not to trigger Article 16 yet could be reviewed and reintroduced.
But the fact remains, there has been a pause when it appeared the government was on course to invoke Article 16 imminently. At the same time, the BBC has produced an analysis by Laura Kuensberg that deals with the issue, without once mentioning that it has dimensions beyond the central players. This approach is pretty odd considering the issue’s importance in terms of the country’s standing internationally. Signing an agreement without the slightest intention of implementing it in total is not considered highly damaging to the UK’s standing. It could also threaten its ability to sign other agreements in future. Second, and in the immediate context of the Good Friday Agreement, the US House Foreign Affairs Committee released a statement which said:
“In threatening to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the United Kingdom threatens to not only destabilize trade relations, but also that hard-earned peace. We call on the UK to abandon this dangerous path, and to commit to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in full.”
This is not diplomatic language. This is straight talking. It is also highly probable that the House Foreign Affairs Committee released this statement in the full expectation that it would gather support from both Democrats and Republicans. So it is impossible this statement will not have been noticed, noted, and taken into account in the UK government’s deliberations on the NIP. For the BBC not to detect a threat of this significance is very odd indeed.
Right now, President Biden has a lot on his plate and would probably not wish to be drawn publicly into a dispute between the UK and the EU. So if Article 16 were to be invoked by the UK, then the formal US response is likely to be a more diplomatically worded encouragement to both sides to sit back down and reach some agreement. President Biden does not have to restrict himself to formal public statements. Like all Presidents, he also uses private communications to make his views known to 10 Downing Street. And of course, he has recently been in the UK, maybe doing precisely that in person behind closed doors. In this context, the statement by the House FA Committee might well be helpful and even act as a proxy for the President.
There are elements on the fringe of the Tory Party who are inclined to tell President Biden to mind his own business. We have seen such hot-headed ideas voiced. But it would be a bold Prime Minister who took the same line. This doesn’t mean that the UK government will stop brandishing Article 16. Blustering bullies like a big stick. It plays well to particular domestic audiences at a time when distraction from corruption and lack of competence is personally handy. But the trouble is, if it is your stick, once you’ve used it, it’s the end. Especially when the other side is bigger than you and has a cupboard full of different sticks, so this issue may be a feature of our discourse with the EU for some time. But be assured the rest of the world is watching too.
This is the Reboot Alternative Leader of the Opposition. Somewhere in a parallel universe we are being offered a vision of what Britain could be, a place where the real challenges are being addressed and answers offered.
Before I turn in detail to the policies which a Labour government will pursue, I want to say something about the context within which the next government will work.
There is no question this is the most challenging period this country has faced since WWII. Then we stood united against a common enemy and supported by friends and allies across the world. Today, under this government, we are a divided Nation, and we have turned our back on friends and allies in Europe. The calls for Scottish independence are loud; our young people face the toughest economic future for generations, and the country is divided over the new arrangements with the European Union.
All of these divisions have been created and made worse by this Tory govt. They have chosen a path to power forged through deliberate division, discarding all restraint, pitting citizen against citizen, rich against poor, community against community. They believe in winners and losers, so long, of course, as they are the winners and the rest of us the losers.
We must face the fact that those of us who would normally be united against them have been divided. The Nation is still divided on Brexit, with millions of people on either side of the argument. But we all know that the challenges we face- particularly climate change, the threat of another pandemic, and even our economic future. All require unity of purpose, a degree of consensus, an understanding of the position of those with whom we disagree. If we do not have this level of agreement, there will be no winners. There can only be losers. We must bridge the divides between us, as an opposition and as a Nation.
As a Party, we took a decision to accept the outcome of a referendum process we did not control, which showed a small majority of those who voted in favour of an exit from the European Union. To achieve that majority, a faction of the Tory Party made a series of reckless promises. I won’t rehearse them all here; it would take far too long. We cannot undo what has happened. We must try to do our best for the country in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
And the first thing we must do is hold the government to account for every single commitment it made. For every advantage they claimed would ensue, for every promise made to every citizen of this country—truth matters in politics.
First, we must acknowledge the genuine hurt and anger of the millions of our citizens who voted to remain in the EU. Those who have seen their businesses destroyed or their children and grandchildren’s expected future snatched away by the government. We have to plan for a greener future in which they can believe, to know once more they are listened to and have some say in the path the country takes.
The word “never” does not belong in politics. In a few short years, those of us now in politics will be gone, and new generations will take charge of the country and decide what they wish to do. Neither I nor any politician can or should seek to constrain our successors in their choices. We do not know all the challenges they will face or the best response to them.
I promise that any Labour-led government will look at all the country’s issues and decide what to do based solely on the greatest benefit for the country as a whole. We will explain what we choose to do and why. We will listen to other parties, work with them, and build a new cooperative approach to politics.
We cannot achieve that without radical reform of the way we do politics. We have been complacent about the state of our democracy. It has not been fundamentally renewed since the horse was the main means of land transport. The place in which we debate and the conventions we follow make little sense to many people. They are an important part of our history. But they should not get in the way of the business of government.
The result is growing disinterest and alienation, clearly seen in the low voter registration and turnout at elections, particularly among the young. This situation shames all British politicians. The future is theirs, but they have no say in it. We must make changes so that they see the benefits of participation and we have their trust.
Today, because I trust the people of this country to forge a new direction for their country’s politics, I commit the party I lead to these actions:
The establishment of Citizens’ Conventions in all the nations and regions to discuss and recommend reform of our institutions and governance;
In the first term of a new Government led by my party, the introduction of proportional representation for all elections, to make every vote count, and end the crude division between a winner and a loser;
Reform of electoral law and Party funding.
The business of government is largely and necessarily boring. It’s about making sure the country functions properly. It’s about making sure our public services are relevant, effective and efficient. It requires honesty and integrity, skill, experience, knowledge and pragmatism. Government is not a popularity contest or a game show. Politics may have some of those characteristics, but government should not. Our government has become a pantomime of political caricatures vying for votes by making promises to deliver impossible dreams.
Talentless political hacks are leading us with all the dubious self-confidence of secondhand car salesmen. We are witnessing corruption on a scale never before experienced in our modern history. Our country’s capacity to deliver even the essential functions of a civilised state has been deliberately crippled by an ideologically imposed experiment in “austerity”. The money tree was just hidden out of sight.
The COVID pandemic has given the world a sharp lesson. Humanity survives together, or it may not survive at all. We are none of us safe until all of us are safe. We face challenges that require a united global response. The Labour Party will ensure that this country plays its full part in the international cooperation mechanisms to achieve that. We reject isolationism; we reject small-minded nationalism; we reject the division of communities.
The country has found out, painfully, what happens when a government seeks to replace science and expertise and prompt action with political “management”—competence in government matters. The Labour Party recognises that we must cooperate with others to deliver what this country needs.
We believe that it is our responsibility to play a positive role in creating a better future for each of us and our children. A life that leaves no one behind. That restores dignity and mutual respect. A life that builds up the future for our young. Creating a social, economic and natural environment fit for them.
Now I want to turn to the policies that will achieve this…