PMQs review: Harman hammers absent Cameron

With the aid of some fine lines, Labour's deputy leader ridiculed the PM's EU panic.

With David Cameron still away in the US, it was Nick Clegg who manned the dispatch box at today's PMQs, but rather than targeting Clegg, Harriet Harman (who, as is traditional when Cameron is absent, replaced Ed Miliband) chose to concentrate her fire on Cameron. "Why is it that out of the last eight Wednesdays, the Prime Minister has only answered questions in this House once?", she asked. It was a strong stat, and Harman followed it up with another fine line: "He's been busy explaining to President Obama the benefits of Britain's membership of the EU, why is he able to do it in the White House but not in this House?" She went on to ridicule Cameron's dithering over the Queen's Speech EU amendment: "if the Prime Minister was here, would he be voting for the government, against the government or showing true leadership and abstaining?" 

In response, a loyal Clegg resisted the temptation to have fun at Cameron's expense and turned his guns on the absent Miliband, declaring that it was the Labour leader "who should be relieved that there isn't Prime Minister's Questions". Referring to Miliband's recent disastrous World At One interview, he quipped: "he denied that borrowing would go up under Labour's plans 10 times, who said that there isn't enough comedy on Radio 4?" 

As I predicted earlier, Tory MPs seized the opportunity to remind Clegg of his past support for a vote on EU membership, with two brandishing the 2008 Lib Dem leaflet calling for "a real referendum". In response, Clegg insisted that his position had not changed; he supports a referendum the next time that there is a formal change in Britain's relationship with the EU (the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto stated: "The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in / out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU."). 

The Deputy PM went further by stating the coalition's EU referendum lock, which sees a public vote triggered whenever there is a transfer of powers to Brussels, meant that it was a question of "when, not if" a referendum would be held. It was the clearest signal Clegg has ever given that he believes a referendum is now inevitable at some point in the next three-four years. 

In a notable attempt to narrow the distance between himself and Cameron, Clegg said that while the coalition's position on a referendum was clear, Labour had voted against the referendum lock. It's worth noting, however, that since then Miliband has explicitly stated that he would not repeal the legislation. With the negotiations over the post-crisis shape of the EU likely to significantly change Britain's relationship a EU, a referendum looks increasingly inevitable whichever party wins in 2015. 

Harriet Harman asked why "out of the last eight Wednesdays, the Prime Minister has only answered questions in this House once?" Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear