10 Janurary 2019

The government has today indicated it could back an amendment tabled by Labour MPs John Mann, Gareth Snell, Caroline Flint and Lisa Nandy, which calls for guarantees on workers’ rights and social, consumer and environmental standards after Brexit.

The amendment reads:

Agrees with paragraph 79 of the Political Declaration that the future relationship must ensure open and fair competition and that provisions to ensure this should cover state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environmental standards, climate change, and relevant tax matters, building on the level playing field arrangements provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement and commensurate with the overall economic relationship; and determines not to allow the UK leaving the EU to result in any lowering after exit day of common EU-UK standards provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement in relation to employment, environmental protection and health and safety which will continue to protect the wellbeing of every person in this country; and determines that the Government should invite the House to consider any measure approved by EU institutions after exit day which strengthens any of these protections.

It makes sense politically for the government to accept this amendment:

  • On state aid and competition, it is already government policy to continue to remain aligned with EU rules after Brexit.
  • While it can be seen to strengthen UK commitments to maintain existing social, employment and environmental protections, it does not deviate from the government’s declared position not to lower current standards.
  • The commitment to invite MPs to consider future EU rules which strengthen protections in these areas is useful symbolic gesture – by supporting this, the government can try to respond to Labour’s concerns that the UK could fall behind in social and environmental standards post-Brexit. However, in substantive terms, the government has not conceded much: it does not alter the terms of the UK-EU agreement, and it does not bind the UK to follow future EU rules in these politically sensitive areas.

Accepting this amendment could go some way to increasing Labour support for the deal. Asked yesterday in the House of Commons whether Labour could accept an altered version of the existing agreement, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer said, “There is the customs union point and the single market deal point, and there are other issues relating to rights and protections, whether they are workplace rights or environmental rights.” Agreeing to some further assurances in these level playing areas is also much less politically contentious for the government than pivoting towards Labour’s demand for a long-term UK-EU customs union – it is less likely to disincentivise Conservative MPs from supporting the deal.

However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn today suggested this amendment did not go far enough to meet the party’s concerns. He said, “It’s already been quite clearly and emphatically rejected by the TUC and leading trade unions. They say it simply doesn’t guarantee the protections that we are seeking. We don’t endorse or accept what has been put forward.”

It is unlikely this move in of itself will convince enough Labour MPs for the deal to pass, but it is an important first signal that the government is beginning to reach across the House to find its majority. It also sends a message to Conservative hardliners that the direction of travel will only get softer if they fail to support the Prime Minister’s deal.